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Feudalism has a wide variety of meanings. Traditionally it refers to the sociopolitical order of Western Europe in the central and later Middle Ages (c.900–1500), though it has also been used to characterize premodern Asian and African societies displaying similar features. The nature and relevance of feudalism as a model has been a subject of much debate and it is important to distinguish between three distinct (though broadly related) understandings of the term: the Marxist conception of feudalism as an economic system based on the ‘feudal mode of production’, the social historical model of ‘feudal society’ as something approximating a Weberian ideal type, and the legal definition of feudalism as a form of service tenement based on the fief.
- Feudalism: The Noun and Its Derivation
- The Legal Model: Feudal Tenure and the ‘Feudo-Vassalic Contract’
- The Marxist Model: The ‘Feudal Mode of Production’
- Sociological Models: Feudal Society and the Annales School
- Modern Criticism I: ‘The Tyranny of a Concept’
- Modern Criticism II: Feudal Transformation
Feudalism is a subject of enduring interest to historians, sociologists, and economists. Although definitions vary widely, the term generally designates the socioeconomic order of Western Europe in the central and later Middle Ages (c.900–1500). Feudalism has been the subject of intense debate and it is important to distinguish broadly between three models of the phenomenon (which amount, in effect, to different definitions of feudalism): the Marxist or historical materialist, the social historical/sociological, and the legal/tenurial (see Wickham 2001). Each of these is based on different premises, though all purport to describe aspects of European society in the Middle Ages.
Feudalism: The Noun and Its Derivation
Feudalism derives from the Medieval Latin feudum (plural: feuda), referring to a form of conditional land-tenure. Feudum is generally rendered into Modern English as ‘fief’ and is believed to derive from the Proto-Germanic *fehu, which originally meant cattle (cf Modern German Vieh), though it also came to have the broader connotation of ‘wealth’ or ‘property’ (cf Modern English ‘fee’) (Arcamone, 2001). As an abstract noun feudalism makes its first appearance in English in the nineteenth century, when it began to be employed as an equivalent to the French féodlité, which is attested about a century earlier. As originally employed, feudalism refers to a tenurial system based around fief-holding. It continues to be used in this (strict) legal sense, as we shall see, but has also taken on broader connotations.
The Legal Model: Feudal Tenure and the ‘Feudo-Vassalic Contract’
The pioneering work on feudalism was undertaken in eighteenth-century France. Within this context, the term (French: féodalité) was used to characterize the tenurial structure of the Ancien régime; feudalism was seen as the system of land holding, which evolved during in the Middle Ages. This legal-tenurial model of feudalism continues to be employed by historians and is sometimes termed feudalism in the ‘strict’ sense, since its places a strong emphasis on fief-holding as its defining characteristic (see Ganshof, 1961: pp. xv–xviii). In some languages this model is even distinguished from its other socioeconomic counterparts. Thus in German Lehnswesen denotes feudalism in a legal sense, while Feudalismus is preferred for other models, and in Dutch a similar distinction is made between leenstelsel and feodalisme.
According to the legal model, feudalism is characterized above all by feudal tenure: it is a system of land holding based on fiefs or benefices (beneficia (singular: beneficium): the latter term predominates in sources before the eleventh century), a form of conditional tenure, generally for one or more lifetimes. For tenure to qualify as truly feudal, however, the tenant must not only hold his land as a fief or benefice, but also be the vassal of his landlord. Thus feudalism combines a tenurial agreement with a social bond (in the technical language of feudal law these are referred to as ‘enfeoffment’ and ‘vassalage’ respectively). Traditional teaching holds that enfeoffment and vassalage were originally distinct, but came to be associated in the course of the seventh and eighth centuries, when the powerful Carolingian dynasty came to prominence in mainland Europe. This period saw much infighting within Francia (a region encompassing much of modern France as well as parts of Germany, the Low Countries, Switzerland, Austria, and northern Spain) as well as the rapid expansion of the Frankish realm from 751 onward. As a consequence – so the traditional wisdom – vassalage and fief-holding became associated: in order to attract ever larger numbers of warriors, the Carolingian rulers rewarded their followers with temporary landholdings in the form of benefices (generally taken from the Church). The result was that benefice-holding (or enfeoffment, as it would later be known) became related closely with vassalic status, eventually leading to the unification of the two phenomena (Ganshof, 1961: pp. 16–50, esp. 16–19; Mitteis 1933: pp. 521–524). This ‘union of fief and vassalage’, of a tenurial agreement and a personal bond of lordship, was the foundation of European feudalism. Although this first emerged in the Frankish heartlands, it was soon exported across the rest of Western Europe by means of conquest and settlement.
This form of tenure in exchange for service was defined by two rituals, homage and investiture, relating respectively to the two elements of the feudal relationship (the personal and the tenurial). The first forged the bond of service: by placing his hands within those of his lord and swearing fealty a man became a vassal. The second, which generally followed on from the first, enacted the property transaction: by handing over objects symbolizing tenure and service (often swords, spears, or banners), the lord invested his vassal in his fief or benefice. Together these acts created the so-called feudo-vassalic contract (Mitteis, 1933: pp. 481–518; Ganshof, 1961: pp. 70–72 and 133–142; Le Goff, 1980). There were important consequences of this for both sides: henceforth the lord could expect loyalty and service – the ‘advice and assistance’ (consilium et auxilium) mentioned in many contemporary texts – from his man; the vassal, on the other hand, could anticipate receiving support and protection from his lord. In theory, if either party failed in its obligations, then the contract was dissolved and the property reverted to the lord. The contract also came to an end upon the death of either party. In the early days of feudalism, the lord might then enfeoff a new vassal; however, fiefs had a tendency to become inheritable and from the late ninth century what tended to happen was that homage and investiture would be repeated whenever lord or man died (what in German is termed Herrenfall and Mannfall). In this manner the fiction of the fief’s reversion to the lord was retained, while the rights of the vassal’s heirs to inherit were respected. In some parts of Europe heirs also had to pay a special due in order to inherit (a ‘feudal relief’); nevertheless, the expectation of inheritance was generally strong (Mitteis 1933: esp. 135–146; Ganshof, 1961: esp. 133–139; cf Bonnassie, 1991: pp. 172–174).
The strength of this model of feudalism lies in its precision: it is possible to test for the presence of fiefs and vassalage empirically. Its greatest danger, however, lies in its prescriptiveness. The scholars responsible for it, above all the Belgian historian François Louis Ganshof and his German counterpart Heinrich Mitteis, tended to see feudal tenure in very legalistic terms. As a consequence, they frequently imposed modern tenurial and legal clarity onto affairs which were less formalized (indeed, in their work both scholars were forced to acknowledge many ‘anomalies’ and ‘regional variations’). More problematic, however, is the premise on which this model rests: namely, that benefice-holding and vassalic status coalesced in the eighth and ninth centuries. As we shall see, there is good reason to doubt that this took place (at least so early). Rejecting such an early unification of fief and vassalage has significant implications. Whereas Ganshof and Mitteis treated feudalism as an early medieval phenomenon, treating the development of rights of inheritance and the multiplication of vassalic bonds as signs of the weakening of this system in the central Middle Ages, it now seems that these latter phenomena an integral part of feudalism from the start. As a consequence historians increasingly see the central and later Middle Ages as the heyday of feudal tenure, rather than as a period of decadence and decline (Carpenter, 2000; Spieb, 2009, 2013).
The Marxist Model: The ‘Feudal Mode of Production’
As noted, beside the legal there are two other distinct models of feudalism: the historical materialist (or Marxist) and the social historical. These are broadly similar, insofar as they both treat feudalism as more than a form of tenure. Nevertheless, they are based on very different premises: the former on a Marxist understanding of society and economy as being shaped by distinctive ‘modes of production’, and the latter on a more sociologically inspired understanding of societal ‘ideal types’.
The defining feature of feudalism in the Marxist sense is the so-called feudal mode of production. According to Marx, a mode of production (German: Productionweise) is defined by productive forces (encompassing both human labor and tools and technology) and relations of production (the societal relations governing production). Marx postulated a number of different modes, the most important of which within this context are the slave (or antique) mode, the feudal mode and the (early) capitalist mode, each of which succeeded one another in Western Europe between Roman antiquity and the Early Modern period. In all of these modes agriculture is the main source of surplus; what distinguishes them is the means by which this is generated: in the antique mode it is slave labor which underpins production, in the feudal mode it is peasant tenant labor, and in the capitalist mode it is wage labor. Any society can therefore be considered ‘feudal’ in a Marxist sense if production within it is defined by the work of peasant tenants. One of the salient features of societies dominated by the feudal mode is a tendency for competition to emerge between central authority and the ruling classes (often in the form of a struggle between center and periphery); since the latter derive their wealth from the same sources and in the same manner as the state, centrifugal tendencies are common, though by no means inevitable (see, with different emphasis, Anderson, 1974; Haldon, 1993).
Although Marx was relatively uninterested in precapitalist modes, a rich literature has developed on the theme. The greatest problem here has been distinguishing between different modes, and these debates have important implications for our understanding of the feudal mode. Hence, though the feudal mode is often presented as a preeminently European and medieval phenomenon (e.g., Anderson, 1974), some now prefer to define feudalism more broadly, treating any society in which surplus wealth is generated primarily by peasant labor as feudal (Haldon, 1993; Wickham, 2005: pp. 259–261; 2008). Seen in these terms, the feudal mode is the most common precapitalist mode, which is attested not only in medieval Europe, but also across much of Asia and Africa before the modern era. Indeed, it has been suggested that we would do better to speak in terms of a ‘tributary’ rather than ‘feudal’ mode for this reason (Haldon, 1993: pp. 63–69 and 91–92). Though many societies may qualify as ‘feudal’ in this sense, important distinctions can be discerned among them. Chris Wickham points to the extraction of surplus in the form of rent and services rather than taxation as the defining feature of medieval European feudalism (Wickham 1984; Wickham, 2005: pp. 56–62; cf Blank, 2013). However, it is precisely the variety witnessed within the feudal mode thus conceived which has led some commentators to call for a more restricted usage of feudalism within Marxist analysis. Jairus Banaji, in particular, argues that feudalism is in danger of losing its explanatory force when defined so broadly, suggesting that such work underestimates the differences between medieval European feudalism and other tributary forms of society (Banaji 2010: esp. 181–250).
Sociological Models: Feudal Society and the Annales School
Perhaps the most widely employed model of feudalism is the sociological or social historical. Feudalism in this sense has been studied most diligently by historians of the Annales School, whose approach takes inspiration from sociology, treating feudalism something akin to a Weberian ‘ideal type’ (Wickham 2001: pp. 34–41). The starting point for this work was Marc Bloch’s monumental La société féodale (Bloch, 1962 (first published in French in 1939)). Within this work, Bloch aimed to present rather than define feudalism and it was only after having completed his two-volume survey that he felt in a position to summarize its salient features: a subject peasantry; the prevalence of the service tenements (fiefs); the dominance of a warrior aristocratic class; the prominence of personal ties of obedience (vassalage); the fragmentation of public authority; and the survival of other (earlier) forms of association (Bloch, 1962: p. 446). Another important feature of feudal society was manorialism, though this was not a defining characteristic thereof. Like historians of feudal tenure, Bloch saw this society as a preeminently Frankish phenomenon; however, unlike his more legally minded counterparts he did not believe that the history of feudal society could be reduced to the story of one form of service tenement (viz, the ‘feudo-vassalic contract’). According to Bloch, feudal society developed in two stages, neither of which could be defined by tenurial developments alone: a first feudal age, from the late Carolingian period up until the eleventh century, and a second, from the mid-eleventh to the thirteenth century. The first age witnessed the development of a feudal society: in the face of invasions by Vikings, Muslims, and Magyars, centralized authority began to decompose, giving way to a more localized and fragmented society, in which interpersonal bonds and regional power structures were predominant. The second feudal age saw the maturation and eclipse of this society: in this period a true hereditary nobility established itself and chivalric values developed; however, at the same time multiple vassalage and rights of inheritance began to threaten the centrality of the feudal relationships and mentalities. Bloch’s treatment of feudal society set the parameters from future work, particularly within the Francophone world. Particularly influential was his treatment of feudalism as phenomenon that embraced all of society, from the greatest lords down to the lowliest peasants.
The most influential subsequent contributions to the field have come from Georges Duby, who was a product of Bloch’s own Annales School. Duby developed and challenged Bloch’s arguments about feudal society in a number of respects. In particular, he placed a greater emphasis on regional studies than had his illustrious predecessor: whereas Bloch sought to generalize about feudalism across all of Western Europe, Duby’s most influential publication was his detailed study of the society of the Mâcon in Burgundy from the ninth to the twelfth centuries (Duby, 1971 (first published 1953)). Duby also parted ways with Bloch in other regards. He saw the development of feudalism in very different terms. Rather than postulating a first and second feudal age, Duby argued that feudal society emerged both later and more rapidly than Bloch had appreciated. His study of the Mâcon convinced Duby that public justice and authority, represented above all by the comital court or placitum, continued to operate well up until 980, suggesting that the decomposition of central authority diagnosed by Bloch had yet to set in at this point. Then, however, during a brief and tumultuous period between 980 and 1030 this system gave way to the (privatized) seigneurial system of justice, which was characteristically feudal (Duby, 1971: pp. 137–148). Other important changes could also be detected in these years: the disappearance of traditional forms of slavery and emergence of a servile peasantry, the formation of the nuclear family, and the development of a knightly class, to name but a few. Numerous scholars of the 1970s and 1980s followed Duby’s lead, tracing how and when similar transformations took place across other regions of France, Spain, and Italy. The result of was a relatively coherent model of sudden transformation, around the year 1000, which Duby termed a ‘feudal revolution’ and others referred to as the ‘feudal mutation’ (mutation féodale). Therein was sought the explanation for numerous developments, from the end of slavery, to the Peace of God (a movement aimed at curbing aristocratic violence), to the growth of heresy (Duby, 1980; Bonnassie, 1991; Poly and Bournazel, 1991; Bois, 1992; cf Toubert, 1973; Bonnassie, 1975–1976).
At their best, these models avoid the pitfalls of their legal and Marxist counterparts: they neither limit feudalism to cases of a certain form of tenure, nor do they generalize it to such an extent as to deprive it of all distinctiveness. Nevertheless, these models present their own dangers. In particular, the ‘feudal revolution/mutation’ paradigm risks reducing complex socioeconomic developments to what often amount to monocausal terms, as we shall see. Moreover, the use of the term feudal to describe this society raises the semantic issue of what is distinctively ‘feudal’ about it, if not the usage of service tenements in the form of fiefs. Nevertheless, despite these and other objections, it remains common to designate the society of the central Middle Ages feudal, particularly within Francophone scholarship (e.g., Mazel, 2010).
Modern Criticism I: ‘The Tyranny of a Concept’
The concept of feudalism has been subjected to much criticism, particularly since the 1990s. Within the Anglophone tradition this has tended to focus on two related issues: the theoretical problem of how (or whether) it is helpful to employ feudalism as a sociohistorical model; and the empirical issue of whether feudalism in the legal sense ever existed. It was the first of these that Elizabeth Brown first raised in her justly famous article of 1974. There she argued that the concept of feudalism had grown too nebulous to be a useful tool of analysis; ‘feudal’, she pointed out, was becoming little more than a synonym for ‘medieval’. Feudalism was, therefore, at risk of becoming a ‘tyrannous construct’, which inhibited rather than enhanced historical research. Brown’s core objection to the term was thus semantic, but her arguments also went much further. She pointed out that feudalism was often employed in a dangerously reified fashion within scholarship: historians wrote of it as if it had an independent historical existence, rather than being one model (among many) for understanding medieval society. Her ultimate conclusion was that historians should avoid the term feudalism altogether and restrict ‘feudal’ as an adjective to cases involving fiefs (Brown, 1974: p. 1086).
Criticisms of an altogether more fundamental nature were raised by Susan Reynolds in her 1994 monograph Fiefs and Vassals. Although Reynolds framed her arguments as a development of Brown’s earlier critique, her target was quite different. Whereas Brown’s criticisms were directed above all at historians who used feudalism as a socioeconomic model (who had tended to be most guilty of expanding the term’s semantic range), Reynolds’ were leveled at those who used feudalism in a legal/tenurial sense. In a nutshell, Reynolds’ thesis was that feudalism in this form had never existed. Her argument proceeded from the belief that the union of fief and vassalage, which as we have seen was the lynchpin of tenurial models of feudalism, never took place; although fiefs and vassals existed during the Middle Ages, they were never associated in the formalized and systematic manner postulated by feudal theory. As such, the ‘feudal system’ was not a medieval creation at all, but a chimera, invented by lawyers and historians between the later Middle Ages and Early Modern era. Reynolds argued that this model was born in two distinct stages. First, jurists of the central and later Middle Ages (especially those responsible for the Libri feudorum) began to systematize existing property relations into a more formal guise. Then, during the Early Modern period Francophone legal experts picked up these terms, further systematizing the evidence to hand in the process. Feudalism is therefore a product of two stages of modeling and systematizing and cannot be expected to conform to (or illuminate) property relations in the early and central Middle Ages.
Reactions to these lines of criticism have been predictably mixed. Brown’s arguments have been taken as a salutary warning about the semantic growth of the term feudalism and subsequent scholarship has employed it in a more cautious and self-conscious fashion (e.g., Wickham 2001). Nevertheless, her more strident calls to abandon the concept have found few supporters (Reynolds being perhaps the most prominent). Reynolds’ work, on the other hand, has occasioned stronger feelings. Elements of her thesis have been warmly received. In particular, her call for a more flexible approach to the legal culture of the early and central Middle Ages has met with wide approval. Her arguments about the unification of fief and vassalage have also achieved a degree of acceptance and most historians would agree that earlier scholarship erred in placing this development in the Carolingian period. Nevertheless, Reynolds’ more bold claims have met with resistance. In particular, her belief that fiefs and vassalage were never closely associated has convinced few (Barthélemy, 1997; Deutinger, 2002). Similarly, her insistence that feudalism tout court was an Early Modern invention has not been widely accepted (Wickham 2001; White, 2005b; nos. XI–XII; Patzold, 2012: pp. 43–94).
Modern Criticism II: Feudal Transformation
Criticism of a different nature has developed regarding the shift variously called the feudal revolution or mutation. As noted, it was Duby’s belief that feudal society emerged not in two stages, as Bloch had suggested, but in one rapid transition around the year 1000. In this he was joined by many prominent French historians of the 1970s and 1980s and in 1994 these voices were joined by that of the American scholar Thomas Bisson, who diagnosed what he saw as a sudden and revolutionary rise in lordly violence across Europe in the early eleventh century (Bisson, 1994). Since then, however, voices of dissent have been raised. Thus, in a series of provocative articles and monographs starting in 1992 Dominique Barthélemy has sought to dismantle almost all aspects of the ‘Duby thesis’. Like Brown, one of Barthélemy’s concerns was that fidelity to a particular model (in his case, of feudal revolution) was straight-jacketing scholarship: work produced within this framework tended to ask when and how transformation took place, without questioning the very mutationist paradigm on which it was built. In response, Barthélemy argued for a return to something closer to Bloch’s original model of feudalism: he suggested that the social and political landscape of France changed slowly and subtly between the early and central Middle Ages, starting in the ninth century and continuing through to the twelfth and thirteenth (Barthélemy, 1992, 2009). In this respect, he argued that many developments, which first come fully to light around the year 1000, were already taking place much earlier. The turning of the first millennium did not so much witness a sudden societal transformation, as an important shift in the nature of the historical evidence, a ‘documentary mutation’ (mutation documentaire), as Barthélemy has neatly termed it (Barthélemy, 1993: esp. 19–127; Barthélemy, 2009: pp. 12–36).
Barthélemy has not been alone. Concerns of a similar nature have been raised by a number of American historians since the 1990s. Foremost among these are Stephen White, Frederic Cheyette, and Jeffrey Bowman, all of whom have argued against the mutationist model. One of their main criticisms is that it depends heavily on an anachronistic distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’, treating early medieval comital courts as public institutions, but viewing their seigneurial successors as purely private. Yet, when examined closely, the operation of these courts reveals many similarities. Therefore, while there may have been developments in judicial practice around the turning of the millennium, to many lords and litigants such changes were probably neither so self-evident nor so fundamental as the mutationist paradigm proposes (White, 2005a: no. IX; Cheyette, 2002; Bowman, 2004). Indeed, it has been pointed out that the model of rapid transformation around the year 1000 runs the risk of oversimplifying change, presuming an a priori relationship between disparate religious, social, and economic developments (Bowman, 2004: pp. 226–227). More specific criticisms have been made of the feudal revolution as postulated by Bisson. Here it has been pointed out that the evidence for a sudden rise in violence in the eleventh century is probably more apparent than real (like the changes in documentary form diagnosed by Barthélemy), reflecting not only the increasing volume of source material, but also developments in approaches to historical writing. In this respect, it is important to note that most of our sources were written by monks and clerics, who had good reason to exaggerate (if not invent) the novelty of the forms violence they experienced at the hands of laymen (White, 2005a: nos. II–III; 2005b: no. XIII; Mazel, 2005).
Such criticisms have been well received and the proposition that all of Europe (or France) underwent a sudden feudal mutation around the year 1000 is no longer accepted. Nevertheless, the dangers of taking criticism too far have also been noted (Wickham, 1997; Fouracre, 2005). Indeed, there is no denying the changes which took place between the early and central Middle Ages and some recent work risks presenting a rather too static a picture of society in these years (Moore, 2000). In this respect, the antimutationist model is in danger of becoming just as monolithic as the revolutionary model it replaced.
Although the criticisms of feudalism– be they of the concept tout court or of the models used to frame it – have often sought to renounce the term altogether, in practice they have led to renewed interest in the subject. In particular, the work of Reynolds and Barthélemy has inspired scholars to return to first principles, revisiting the evidence for fiefs, vassals, and the complex interplay between these in the early and central Middle Ages. There is an emerging consensus that it is unhelpful to speak of feudalism in anything other than a Marxist sense before the central Middle Ages. Historians working within a legal-tenurial framework tend to see feudalism a development of the eleventh and twelfth centuries (Deutinger, 2002; Hyams, 2002; Dendorfer, 2004; Dendorfer and Deutinger, 2010; Roach, 2012), whereas those employing more sociologically informed models continue to see the eleventh century as the period in which classically ‘feudal’ forms of lordship emerged, though they emphasize the gradual and complex nature of developments (Kosto, 2001; Mazel, 2010; West, 2013). It would, therefore, seem that while ‘textbook feudalism’ never existed as such, something closely approximating it did. The relationship fiefs and vassalage is a case in point here: although it seems unlikely that these were ever as systematically associated as traditional teaching holds, it is equally clear that a close connection between the two developed during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In this sense, there is something of an emerging reaction against what is perceived to have been the hypercriticism of the 1990s. However, above all recent work underlines the flexibility and adaptability of feudalism – as Steffen Patzold puts it, there was not so much one ‘feudalism’ as many forms of feudalism in Europe during the central and later Middle Ages (Patzold, 2012: pp. 120–121).
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