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FEUDALISM can be defined as a type of government in which political power is exercised locally by private individuals rather than by the agents of a centralized state.

It is often a TRANSITIONAL STAGE that follows the collapse of a unified political system.

It serves as a STOPGAP until conditions permit the emergence of a centralized government.

Feudalism has appeared in various areas and times in world history - in ancient Egypt and in modem Japan, for example - but the most famous of all feudal systems emerged in France following the collapse of Charlemagne's empire.

It was the characteristic political system of the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries in Europe.

Fully developed feudalism was a fusion of three basic elements:

  1. The personal element, called lordship or VASSALAGE, by which one nobleman, the vassal, became the loyal follower of a stronger nobleman, the lord.

  2. The property element called the FIEF (usually land), which the vassal received from his lord in order to enable him to fulfill the obligations of vassalage.

  3. The governmental element, meaning the exercise of GOVERNMENTAL POWER BY PRIVATE INDIVDUALS over vassals and fiefs.

The roots of these three elements go back to late Roman and early Germanic times.

 PERSONAL ELEMENT: By the fifth century the ability of the Roman emperor to protect his subjects had disappeared.

Citizens had to depend on the PATRONAGE system, by which a Roman noble organized a group of less fortunate citizens as a personal bodyguard and in return looked after their wants and interests.

A similar arrangement existed among the Germans -the war band or comitatus.

 VASSALAGE, the personal element in feudalism, arose from the combination of patronage and the comitatus.

 PROPERTY ELEMENT: The roots of the property element in feudalism, the fief, go back to Roman practices mainly.

In the late Roman Empire the owners of great estates (LATIFUNDIA) were steadily adding to their already extensive holdings.

Unable to manage their tracts, the nobles granted the temporary use of portions to other people in exchange for dues and services.

Such land was called a beneficium, or BENEFICE (literally, a "benefit").

In late Merovingian times, when MOUNTED WARRIORS rather than old-style foot soldiers were needed to deal effectively with Muslim raiders from Spain, Charles Martel granted numerous benefices to compensate his mounted followers for this added expense.

During the civil wars and foreign invasions of late Carolingian times, the competition among Charlemagne's successors for the available supply of mounted knights led not only to the wholesale granting of benefices but also to making the benefice HEREDITARY.

On the death of the vassal, the benefice now passed to his heir instead of reverting to the king.

Hereditary benefices were commonly called FIEFS.

 GOVERNMENTAL ELEMENT: The third basic element in feudalism, the exercise of governmental power by private individuals, also had antecedents in late Roman times.

As the imperial government weakened, the powerful Roman landowners organized their own PRIVATE ARMIES to police their estates and fend off governmental agents, particularly tax collectors.

The emperors also gave certain estates GRANTS OF IMMUNITY from their authority.

The Germanic kings often followed this practice and it became the rule with Charlemagne's successors in their competitive efforts to fill their armies with  mounted fief-holding vassals.

Where immunity from the king's authority was not freely granted, it was often usurped


In theory feudalism was a vast hierarchy.

At the top stood the KING, and theoretically all the land in his kingdom belonged to him.

He kept large areas for his personal use (royal or crown lands) and, in return for the military service of a specified number of mounted knights, invested the highest nobles - such as dukes and counts (in England, earls) - with the remainder. 

Those nobles holding lands directly from the king were called TENANTS-IN-CHIEF. They in turn, in order to obtain the services of the required number of mounted warriors (including themselves) owed to the king, parceled out large portions of their fiefs to LESSER NOBLES.

This process, called subinfeduation was continued until, finally, the lowest in the scale of vassals was reached the single knight whose fief was just sufficient to support one MOUNTED WARRIOR


Since the Count of Champagne, for example, was vassal to nine different lords, on whose side would he fight should two of his lords go to war against one another?

This dilemma was partially solved by the custom of LIEGE HOMAGE.

When a vassal received his FIRST FIEF, he pledged liege or prior homage to that lord.

This obligation was to have top priority over services that he might later pledge to other lords.




In the ceremony known as the ACT OF homage, the vassal knelt before his lord and promised to be his man."

In the OATH OF FEALTY that followed, the vassal swore on the Bible or some other sacred object that he would remain true to his lord.

Next, in the ritual of INVESTITURE. a lance, glove, or even a bit of straw was handed the vassal to signify his jurisdiction (not ownership) over the fief.

The FEUDAL CONTRACT thus entered into by lord and vassal was considered sacred and binding upon both parties.

Breaking this tie of mutual obligations was considered a FELONY, because it was the basic agreement of feudalism and hence of early medieval society.

The lord for his part was obliged to give his vassal PROTECTION AND JUSTICE.

The vassal's primary duty was MILITARY SERVICE.

He was expected to devote FORTY DAYS SERVICE each year to the lord without payment.

In addition, the vassal was obliged to assist the lord in rendering justice in the LORD'S COURT.

At certain times, such as when he was captured and had to be ransomed, the lord also had the right to demand money payments, called AIDS.

UNSUAL AIDS, such as defraying the expense of going on a crusrde, could not be levied without the vassal's consent.

The lord also had certain rights, called FEUDAL INCIDENTS, regarding the administration of the fief. These included:

WARDSHIP - the right to administer the fief during the minority of a vassal's heir.

FORFEITURE of the fief if a vassal failed to honor his feudal obligations

The final authority in the feudal age was FORCE, and the general atmosphere of the era was one of VIOLENCE.

Rebellious vassals frequently made war upon their lords.

But warfare was also considered the normal occupation of the nobility, for success offered glory and rich rewards.

To die in battle was the only honorable end for a spirited gentlemen; to die in bed was a "cows death."

An extraordinary aspect of feudalism was the INCLUSION OF THE CHURCH IN THE SYSTEM.

The unsettled conditions caused by the Viking and Magyar invasions forced Church prelates to enter into close relations with the only power able to offer them protection -- the feudal barons in France and the kings in Germany.

BISHOPS AND ABBOTS THUS BECAME VASSALS, receiving fiefs for which they were obligated to provide the usual feudal services.

The papacy fared even worse; during much of the tenth and early eleventh centuries the PAPACY FELL INTO DECAY after becoming a prize sought after by local Roman nobles.


In addition to attempting to add CHRISTIAN VIRTUES to the code of knightly conduct called chivalry, the Church sought to impose LIMITATIONS ON FEUDAL WARFARE.

In the eleventh century bishops inaugurated the Peace Of God and Truce of God movements.

The PEACE OF GOD banned from the sacraments all persons who pillaged sacred places or refused to spare noncombatants.

The TRUCE OF GOD established "closed seasons" on fighting: from sunset on Wednesday to sunrise on Monday and certain longer periods, such as Lent. These peace movements were generally ineffective, however.

Medieval society conventionally consisted of thee classes: THE NOBLES, THE PEASANTS, AND THE CLERGY. Each of these groups had its own task to perform:

The NOBLES were primarily fighters, belonging to an honored society -- distinct from the PEASANT WORKERS  -- freemen and serfs.

In an age of physical violence, society obviously would accord a higher place to the man with the sword  than  the man with the hoe.

The Church drew on both the noble and the peasant classes for the clergy. Although most higher churchmen were sons of nobles and held land as vassals under the feudal system, the CLERGY formed a class that was considered separate from the nobility and peasantry.


How was feudalism a blend of Greco-Roman culture, the Germanic tribes, and Christianity?

Why did it develop? 

What were the alternatives to feudalism?



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Last modified: October 31, 1999