It is not uncommon for a Bengali communist to say that this or the other opinion, point of view, statement displays a feudal mindset, especially when the opposition is eloquently forceful. However, as would be seen later in the blog, the term is not only fuzzy, but also hazy and imprecise

A term first used in early modern period (~ 17th century), feudalism in its most classic sense refers to a medieval European political system comprising of a set of reciprocal legal obligations among noble and warrior classes. Based on three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs, it is oten a component of manorial systems. The root is a Latin word, feodum meaning fief, but the term was never regarded as a formal political system by people living in medieval period. As there is no generally accepted agreement on its meaning, the working definition above is used by many historians. Nevertheless, from 1960 onwards, some medieval historians have included in the meaning broader social aspects, like peasantry, manorial bonds and other features of the so-called feudal society. Some other historians, since the 1970s, have re-examined the evidence and concluded that feudalism is an unworkable term and should be removed entirely from scholarly and educational discussions. If it is to be used at all, precise qualifiers are necessary.

Beyond Europe, the concept of feudalism is generally described by the analogous phrase semi-feudal in discourses on Japan under the shoguns, medieval Ethiopia and places further afield like ancient Egypt, Parthian empire, India to American South of the 19th century. Derogatory and inappropriate uses of the adjective feudal are not uncommon in descriptions of non-Western societies where institutions and attitudes similar to those of medieval Europe are perceived to prevail. Anyway, the indiscriminate manner in which the term feudalism has been used has deprived it of specific meaning, leading many historians and political theorists to reject it as a useful concept for understanding society.


Having regard to the unwillingness of historians to classify other places following European examples, it is now rare to find early medieval Indian period being described as feudal. This is so inspite of Professor R.S. Sharma’s work on Indian Feudalism. For instance, Dr. Sima Yadav after examining epigraphic records of land and village grants of Gurjar Pratihars, Pala, Parmara and Chandela dynasties has found that not more than 33 villages were granted by these kings ruling over the whole of Northern India from 700 to 1100 C. E. Among those villages, only two were secular land grants while the rest were educational or religious in nature. Extending the period by 200 more years, i.e., from 1200 to 1400 C. E., the total number of village grants reach a figure of 59, out of which only six villages were granted for secular purposes. As against this, 82% of Mughal revenue went to 1671 mansabdars of Akbar’s India, even though Mughal empire was not regarded as feudal. It would be therefore seen that less than 0.001% of land grants in early medieval India was administrative or secular in nature. Dr. Sima argued that in view of this it would not be in order to designate the period as feudal. Moreover, there are other reasons for decline of trade, deurbanization, paucity of coins and emergence of a closed rural economy with a dependant exploited peasantry, regarded generally (in Europe) as necessary conditions for feudalism to emerge. Wherever the term feudal is used, it is generally with a pejorative intent, as also the offices of zamindar, jagirdar, desmukh and chaudhuri associated with it. Most of these systems were abolished after the Indian independence but some remnants exist.


When the term feudal was first used in 1614, the system it attempted to describe was on the wane if not gone entirely.There is no evidence of a writer in the period in which feudalism was supposed to have flourished making use of the word. Apparently, it was used as a pejorative to describe any law or custom that was deemed to be unfair or out-dated. Majority of these laws and customs were related in some way to the medieval institution of the fief, a word which first appears on a Frankish charter dated 884. Its derivative, feudalism, served the purpose of defining the social and economic systems of most of the medieval European societies. Its main ingredient–the granting of land in return for military service–had appeared all over the world in many different kinds of society e.g., Japan under the shogunates in the 16th century.

At the centre of the feudal system in medieval Europe was the king, and a medieval king was, above everything else, a warrior. During the period 9th to 14th century, considered to be the heyday of feudalism, the most important element in war was the armoured knight riding a horse. It was, however, quite expensive to maintain such a contingent, and the trend among the rulers was to hire the knights. The suppliers of such personnel were granted large holdings of land known as “feud” or “fief”, and hence the term “feudalism”. These suppliers, generally known as barons in England, received their lands directly from the king and, in turn, leased parts of their estates to the knights, who in their turn gave leases to yeomen farmers.


Although the theoretical background is this, there were places where feudalism scarcely gained a hold, and where men held with no obligation to anyone else unfettered ownership of land. This was known as an allod, a system of landholding prevalent in the south of France and Spain.
As a consequence, feudalism, due to its very nature, gave rise to a hierarchy of rank, to a predominantly static social structure in which every man knew his station. This hierarchical order told a man that he is obliged to serve on demand the person from whom he had his land. To maintain the existing relationships for all time to come, rights of succession to land were strictly controlled by various laws, or customs of entail. Among these, the most rigid control was provided by the custom of primogeniture, by which all property of a deceased landholder must pass intact to his eldest son.

With the exception perhaps of the monarch, every man was the vassal or servant of his lord. He had to take an oath of homage to him, and in return the lord promised to give him protection and to see that he received justice. So, from a theoretical point of view, feudalism was the expression of a society in which every man was bound to every other by mutual ties of loyalty and service. Actually, however, feudal society was marked by a vast gulf between the very few, very rich, great landholders and the mass of the poor who worked for the profit of the nobility, including bishops because the Church was one of the biggest landholders in medieval times. This social pyramid had near its base agricultural labourers or villeins and beneath them peasants or serfs.


Till such time powerful monarchies with central bureaucracies emerged, it was the lord of the manor who was the real ruler of society. A peasant cultivated the land for him and owed him a number of feudal dues, more and more of which were commuted to money payments as time went by. In disputes, justice was dispensed to him in the manorial courts. There were variations in customs, but it was common for a peasant to have a small plot, or to share a communal plot, on which to grow food for himself and his family. He was also entitled to gather firewood from forest land for hearth fire and grind corn and bake bread on payment in the lord’s mill and oven. Single plots were rarely found. Usually, the custom was to divide lands into strips, with each household’s strips scattered about the manor.

It was in turbulent eighth-century France western feudalism evolved, offering aristocratic landowners potential security in the absence of law and order. At that time, major landowners assumed by concession or usurpation substantial legal and governmental power from the central government and proceeded through private arrangements with lesser landowners to create local militias for defensive purposes. By nature particularistic and quite undisciplined at the formative stage, feudalism was a component of the monarchy itself. Developing its own system of law and code of ethics for its members, feudalism spread throughout Europe to assume a dominant role in the political and cultural history of the medieval times. William the Conqueror brought it to England in 1066, and substantially curbing the powers of all feudal vassals retained for himself considerable central authority. Generally, feudalism comprised of three elements – personal, property, and governmental. Its members, including the monarchs who headed the feudal system, enjoyed specific rights but were also bound by feudal law to certain fixed duties.


Three Primary elements comprising feudalism were lords, vassals and fiefs, its structure defined how these three elements were brought together. The land-owning lord granted possession of the land or fief to a vassal, and received military service from the vassal in exchange. Feudalism was based on the obligations and relations between lord, vassal and fief. However, before a lord could grant land (a fief) to someone, he had to make that person a vassal. A formal and symbolic ceremony known as commendation was held for this purpose. It consisted of an act of homage and an oath of fealty. The homage was actually a contract between the two, under which the vassal was required to fight for the lord on demand. The oath of fealty was more or less an extension of homage, reinforcing explicitly the commitments of the vassal made during homage. On completion of the ceremony, lord and vassal were bound in a feudal relationship with agreed-upon mutual obligations to one another.

Principal obligation of lord was to grant a fief, or its revenues, to vassal; the fief was the reason for which the vassal entered into the relationship. There were other obligations as well to the vassal and fief which the lord had to fulfill, such as maintenance of the land. As the lord had not given the land away, only loaned it, it was still the lord’s responsibility to maintain the land, while the vassal had the right to collect revenues obtained therefrom. It was also his duty to protect the land and the vassal from harm.

In return, the vassal’s principal obligation to the lord was to provide aid or military service. Mobilising whatever arms and personnel the vassal could purchase by the revenues from the fief, he was responsible to answer to calls to military service on behalf of the lord. This promise of military help was the basis of the relationship along with other commitments the vassal had to fulfill sometimes. One such commitment was to provide the lord with counsel, when he had to take a major decision, such as whether or not to go to war against an adversary. In such a situation, he would summon all his vassals and hold a council, and the the vassals would possibly be required to yield a certain amount of their agricultural outputs to help him.

Fief was the pivot, around which the land-holding relationships of feudalism revolved. Such land grants would range in size from a small farm to a much larger area of land depending on the power of the granting lord. Abbots and bishops could also act as lords and were included in the lord-vassal relationships. In this way, different layers of lordship and vassalage prevailed. At the top or near it was the king granting fiefs to aristocrats, who were his vassals. They in turn were lords to their own vassals or the knights. The knights were in their turn lords of the manor to the peasants who worked on the land. Sometimes there was an emperor lording over everyone.


Feudalism as a concept was introduced by English and French lawyers in 16th century to describe certain traditional obligations between members of the warrior aristocracy. It became a popular and widely used word in 1748 after Montesquieu used it in his work, The Spirit of the Laws. At about that time, writers of the Enlightenment wrote about feudalism as a criticism of the antiquated system of the Ancien Regime or French monarchy. Calling the era The Age of Enlightenment, writers stressed on Reason in their works and termed the medieval times as Dark Ages. Contemporary authors (also known as belonging to The Age of Reason) generally mocked and ridiculed anything from the “Dark Ages” including feudalism, projecting its negative characteristics on the current French monarchy as a means of political gain.


In his political analysis, Karl Marx also made use of the term feudalism. He described feudalism in 19th century as the economic situation coming before the inevitable rise of capitalism. To him, the defining characteristic of feudalism was that the power of the ruling class (the aristocracy) rested on their control of arable land, leading to a class-based society based on the exploitation of peasants farming these lands usually as serfs. Looking at feudalism through the lens of economics, Marx said :

“The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.”

Discussions on Marxian interpretation of feudalism have been going on for nearly 150 years, a famous example of which is the extensive debate over feudalism and capitalism between the noted Marxian economist Paul Sweezy and his British colleague Maurice Dobb. Dobb attempted to demonstrate that capitalism emerged from contradictions internal to feudalism itself; while Sweezy said that capitalism developed independent of feudalism and overtook it as an external force because of its dynamism in contrast to feudalism’s stagnancy. On the exact definition of feudalism, Dobb says that feudalism is essentially defined by the existence of sefdom, while Sweezy is of the view that this definition is inadequate and that it may apply to western European feudalism but shouldn’t be generalized beyond that. Another matter of dispute is the classification of the period of the 1500’s and 1600’s in western Europe, during the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Pre-capitalist commodity production is the name given by Sweezy. According to Dobb, it is feudalism in an advanced state of dissolution.


Among historians of medieval period, the debate on feudalism is still continuing, a notable example of which is the one between John Horace Round and Frederic William Maitland in late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were both historians of medieval Britain but arrived at different conclusions regarding the character of English society before the Norman Conquest in 1066. Round said that the Normans had brought feudalism, while in Maitland’s opinion its fundamentals were already in place in Britain.

Francois Louis Ganshof’s concept of feudalism is most widely known today and is also easiest to understand. From a narrow legal and military perspective, he stated in 1944 that feudal relationships existed only within the medieval nobility itself and that when a lord granted a fief to a vassal, the vassal provided military service in return.


A contemporary of Ganshof, the French historian Marc Bloch approached feudalism not so much from a legal and military point of view but from a sociological one. Developing his ideas in the work, Feudal Society (1939), Bloch categorized feudalism as a type of society that was not limited solely to the nobility. He proposed (like Ganshof after him) that there was a hierarchal relationship between lords and vassals, but added the rider that there was also a similar relationship obtaining between lords and peasants. This radical notion, that peasants were part of the feudal relationship, sets Bloch apart from his contemporaries. His view is that the vassal performed military service in exchange for the fief, while the peasant performed physical labour in return for protection, and that both were a form of feudal relationship. In his opinion other elements of society can also be seen in feudal terms. “Lordship” was the centre of all aspects of life, and hence, there was a feudal church structure, a feudal courtly (and anti-courtly) literature, and a feudal economy.

Considering the oft stated views of historians that feudalism is a technical term which can only be applied to western European institutions of the middle ages, others including sociologists thought of the phenomenon in a more abstract way, as a general method of political organization, and one which can therefore be identified in other times and places, for instance shogunate Japan. In seventeenth-century England the term began as a way of talking about a mode of landholding that was then rapidly disappearing. It was widely taken up by legal scholars in eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in this way entered the vocabularies of the founders of sociology. They took care while using the term to refer to the type of society from whence capitalism had emerged in western Europe, but did not explicitly formulate a fully developed concept of feudalism. Anyway, highly influential beginnings of such a concept can be seen without much difficulty from the historical writings of both Karl Marx and Max Weber. Still, there remain disputes about how the concept of feudalism should be formulated because all the specifically sociological conceptualizations are nomothetic or generalizing in character.

In view of this, the ideographic or individualizing formulation arrived at by French historian Marc Bloch in his Feudal Society assumes importance. Not only it is highly influential in itself, but also the contrast between it and the various sociological alternatives illustrates some of the central disputes about concept formation in the social sciences. His methodological presupposition is that each society is unique and has to be understood in its own terms,.only grudgingly agreeing to include Japan, that something like feudalism may have existed outside of west Europe. A profoundly empiricist and humanist work, consequences of his assumptions are apparent in his formulation of the core relation of feudalism-vassalage. Bloch defines vassalage in a highly detailed study of France during the middle ages, as ‘the warrior ideal’, or a contract of mutual benefit freely entered into ‘by two living men confronting each other’. From this relationship, all other characteristics of feudal societies follow from this relationship, such as, hereditary succession, enfeoffment (the granting of land by lords to their vassals), the fragmentation of authority, and the existence of a confinable and taxable but otherwise self-disciplining peasantry. The inevitable tarnishing of ‘the purity of the (original) obligation’, and the gradual dissolution of the way of life constructed around it was a result of the institutionalization of vassalage, much to Bloch’s regret. It is an axiom that no proper sociological approach to social phenomena can be started from the assumption that each society must be considered separately and as wholly unique, which certainly the literature relating to feudalism in western Europe (if not in Japan) is. This is against the requirement of comparability in most macro-sociological investigations and what differentiates investigations from one another is whether they depend upon comparisons that were made before or after the formulation of the concepts upon which they rest; that is, whether they depend upon empiricist or realist modes of formulation, respectively.

As stated earlier, feudalism and related terms should be used with caution. For instance, a circumspect historian like Fernand Braudel puts feudalism within quotation marks when applying it in wider social and economic contexts. In his book, The Perspective of the World (1984) he writes :

“…the seventeenth century, when much of America was being ‘feudalized’ as the great haciendas appeared.”

The word feudal was never used by medieval people to describe their societies, though in popular parlance the term is used either for all voluntary or customary bonds in medieval society or for a social order in which civil and military power is exercised under private contractual agreements. Anyway, it is best used only to denote voluntary, personal undertakings binding lords to protect free men in return for support which characterized administrative and military orders.


U.S. historian Elizabeth Brown rejected in 1974 the term feudalism because she found it to be an anachronism imparting a false sense of uniformity to the concept. Taking note of the contemporary definitions of feudalism (which are often contradictory), she argued that the word is only a construct with no basis in medieval reality, an invention of modern historians to read back “tyrannically” into historical record. Her supporters have suggested that the term should be expunged from history textbooks and lectures on medieval history entirely. Susan Reynolds in her book, Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (1994), elaborated on Brown’s thesis, even though some historians questioned Reynolds’ methodology. Anyway, there are historians supporting Reynolds and her argument.

Reynolds says “…vassalage. . . is a term that no longer matches either the evidence we have available or the conceptual tools we need to use in analyzing it. It is both too diffuse and too narrow — not surprisingly, since it survives from a primitive stage of the study of social relations. . . . Vassalage is too vacuous a concept to be useful.” As regards fief, specifically on the rights and obligations thereof, Reynolds observes, “Abstract nouns like feo, fevum, feudum. . . cannot be assumed to have has consistent meanings outside their contexts. Even if one context suggests some content for a word, that content cannot be assumed to be inherent in the word itself in such a way as to be transferred to other contexts and other cases. Contexts, unfortunately, are often unhelpful in this period (900-1100 C. E.). . . . Scribes may have used apparently classificatory nouns to describe pieces of property without being concerned to distinguish anything we might call different and definable categories of property.” She goes on to add : “Even if they (the scribes) were interested in distinctions, the words used in records. . . could not have had the technical senses they might acquire in later ages of professional law.” In other words, Reynolds asserts that meanings may have varied from monastery to monastery; while at other moments her argument seems to be that they varied from region to region and even in the same community or region may have varied significantly over time.

In her opinion, what words like feudum, beneficium, and alod mean is part of a larger problem, while the source of “feudalism” itself is a historiographical concept. “Fiefs and vassalage are post-medieval constructs, though rather earlier than the construct of feudalism. . . . Even when historians follow the terminology of their documents. . . they tend to fit their findings into a framework of interpretation that was devised in the sixteenth century and elaborated in the seventeenth and eighteenth. . . We cannot understand medieval society and its property relations if we see it through seventeenth- or eighteenth century spectacles.” Reynolds goes on to argue that the academic law of fiefs was the creation of the later middle ages and of bureaucratic, professionalized governments and, as “expert law,” did not develop out of the customary law of noble property of an earlier age; whatever connections it had to practices of an earlier age, she adds, was to the relations of bishops and abbots to their tenants rather then of great secular lords to theirs.

On her part, Reynolds does not follow this chronology all the time. For instance, at one place she suggests that learned lawyers may have influenced practice in Montpellier at the beginning of the twelfth century; at others she is certain she has found such influences in the later twelfth or early thirteenth centuries, and presents largely hypothetical arguments, sprinkling her sentences liberally with the auxiliary verb may. Apart from the chronological issue, there is the question of what became of the “law(s) of fiefs” in the age of academically trained lawyers related to what existed before? Though it is by implication at the very centre of her enterprise, Reynolds’ observations in the matter are somewhat brief.

Reynolds disregards Bloch and Ganshof’s arguments on “the joining of fief to vassalage” or “the reification of fidelity.” as also the various chronologies given for this linkage.There are indeed eleventh-and twelfth-century documents explicitly bonding fidelity to property. Reynolds discusses one such group at length, as an example of what she takes to be the intrusion of professional law into the relations of secular lords and their subjects at the very beginning of the twelfth century. Generally, these are groups of texts that all follow a pattern – one states that a donor gives his castle and village or other property “ad alodium” to William (V or VI) of Montpellier, usually getting money in return; a second states that William gives the same property to the donor “ad feudum”; a third records an oath of fidelity. (It is not uncommon to find that the first two acts are rolled into one.) In view of this it would appear that the gift “ad alodium” was not a once-for-all-time event; it was not conceived of as permanently transferring a “bundle of rights” from one person to another.

There are also historical examples calling into question the traditional use of the term feudalism:
Historical records reveal that the early Carolingians had vassals, and so did other leading men in the kingdom. During the next two hundred years, this relationship became more and more widespread but there were differences in function and practice in different locations. It was prevalent in the German kingdoms replacing the kingdom of Eastern Francia as also in some Slavic countries. Feudal relationships understandably gave rise to serfdom, a system binding peasants to the land.

In the Holy Roman Empire, the conventional model of feudal relationship, a clear hierarchy from emperor to lesser rulers like kings, dukes, princes, or margraves, was not found. The person supposedly at the top, the Holy Roman Emperor, was elected by a group of seven magnates, three of whom were princes of the church, who in theory could not swear allegiance to any secular lord.

In the French kingdoms also, such hierarchies apparently were not there, as would be seen in the reported incident during a commendation ceremony. It seems when Rollo of Normandy knelt to pay homage to Charles the Simple in return for the Duchy of Normandy, he knocked the king down as he rose, demonstrating his view that the bond was only as strong as the lord (in this instance, not strong at all). Thus it was possible for ‘vassals’ to openly disparage feudal relationships.

Also, the autonomy with which the Normans ruled their duchy (in France) supports the view that, despite legal feudal relationships, the Normans did as they pleased. When they were on top, the Normans utilized the feudal relationship to bind their followers to them. Actually, it was the influence of the Norman invaders which strengthened and to a great extent institutionalized the feudal relationship in England after the Norman Conquest.

As the medieval term feudalism is used indiscriminately to mean all reciprocal obligations of support and loyalty for unconditional tenure of position, jurisdiction or land and so on, historians generally restrict its application to exchange of specifically voluntary and personal undertakings, and exclude involuntary obligations attached to tenure of unfree land. That is considered to be an aspect of manorialism, an element of feudal society but not of feudalism proper.

About chepeyja

chartered engineer(India), B.Sc., risk management consultant, blogger and layabout!
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