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European Feudalism was a political-economic system that flourished in the Middle Ages, between the 10th and 13th centuries, and lasted much longer in some areas.

Feudalism is a major concept for Marxist historians, who look for the transition from feudalism to capitalism, especially in the French Revolution. For Marxists it involves not only relations between nobles and peasants but the whole economic structure of society and the reasons for economic and social change. Non-Marxist historians use the term in less grandiose ways, and it is standard fare in textbooks, though less and less research uses the concept in recent years.

Feudalism in Europe involved nobles who were granted lands by kings in exchange for military assistance. These lords were able to build castles, sometimes with a moat, which would serve as a defense against enemies. The lords would rent their land out to vassals who swore an oath of fealty to defend the land against common enemies and were also required to make some sort of payment to the lord. Vassals were considered nobles but with less power. Serfs were bound to the vassals and their land, such that they had to swear fealty to him. The serfs would farm the Lord's demesne in exchange for defence by the lord and permission to farm some of the land for subsistence purposes. Over time this system evolved such that rather than labor services being used as payment by the serfs, they would pay with goods such as food, and eventually money. If one lord sold the land to another the peasants would not move as they were bound to the land and to their new lord.


Feudalism also developed independently in Japan. Skilled military leaders called bushi raised armies of Samurai to defend their estates. The samurai lived by a code of conduct called Bushido. Bushido was similar to the Chivalry of Europe, but included a code for Japanese women to follow. Bushido emphasized extreme loyalty to one's lord even more than chivalry, making the Japanese amazingly tenacious fighters. As in European feudalism, the land was farmed by peasants.


In recent years, some historians have criticized the use of the term feudalism, and the way it is used to describe medieval society. They cite three arguments to support this criticism. Firstly, that the term was not used by medieval society,[1] but was invented by later lawyers in an attempt to interpret the legal system of the Middle Ages; secondly, that it reflects a simplified and often incorrect view of medieval law and politics; and thirdly, that modern historians use the term in too many different and often incompatible ways. The debate over this issue continues. Recently historians have distinguished "féodalité", or feudalism in the narrower, feudo-vassalic sense of relations between lords and vassals within the noble class, from "seigneurie" or manorialism, that is, relations between lords and peasants.


  1. But closely related terms were used, such as feodum and fief.
  • Marc Bloch, Feudal Society classic from Annales School
  • Brown, Elizabeth E. R. , "The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe", American Historical Review (1974) 79:1063-88* Critchley, J.S. Feudalism (1978), covers world history
  • Duus, Peter. Feudalism In Japan (1993)
  • Herlihy, David. History of Feudalism (1979)
  • Reynolds, Susan. Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (1996), rejects the concept online edition