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The F-Word

The Problem with Feudalism


Medieval historians aren't generally bothered by words. In fact, the intrepid medievalist is always ready to leap into the rough-and-tumble milieu of Old English word origins, medieval French literature and Latin Church documents. Icelandic Sagas hold no terror for the medieval scholar! Next to these challenges, the esoteric terminology of medieval studies is mundane, and no threat to the historian of the Middle Ages.

But there's one word that has become the bane of medievalists everywhere. Use it in discussing medieval life and society, and the average medieval historian will screw up his face in revulsion. There might be some sighs, some head shaking, and perhaps even some hands thrown in the air.

What is this word that has the power to annoy, disgust, and even upset the ordinarily cool and collected medievalist?


Every student of the Middle Ages is at least somewhat familiar with "feudalism." The term is usually defined as follows:

    Feudalism was the dominant form of political organization in medieval Europe. It was a hierarchical system of social relationships wherein a noble lord granted land known as a fief to a free man, who in turn swore fealty to the lord as his vassal and agreed to provide military and other services. A vassal could also be a lord, granting portions of the land he held to other free vassals; this was known as "subinfeudation," and often led all the way up to the king. The land granted to each vassal was inhabited by serfs who worked the land for him, providing him with income to support his military endeavors; in turn, the vassal would protect the serfs from attack and invasion.

    Feudalism arose at a time when central governments were weak or nonexistent in Europe, and kings used the system to exert control over their subjects and secure military strength throughout their lands. In the absence of a strong monarchy and rule of law, the feudal relationship between the lord and his vassal was the glue that held medieval society together.

Of course, this is an extremely simplified definition, and there are many exceptions and caveats that go along with this model of medieval society, but the same could be said of any model applied to a historical period. Generally, it is fair to say that this is the explanation for feudalism you'll find in most history textbooks of the 20th century, and it is very close to every dictionary definition available.

The problem? Virtually none of it is accurate.

Feudalism was not the "dominant" form of political organization in medieval Europe. There was no "hierarchical system" of lords and vassals engaged in a structured agreement to provide military defense. There was no "subinfeudation" leading up to the king. The arrangement whereby serfs worked land for a lord in return for protection, known as manorialism or seignorialism, was not part of a "feudal system." Monarchies of the early Middle Ages may have had their challenges and their weaknesses, but kings did not use feudalism to exert control over their subjects, and the feudal relationship was not the "glue that held medieval society together."

In short, feudalism as described above never existed in Medieval Europe.

I know what you're thinking. For decades, even centuries, "feudalism" has characterized our view of medieval society. If it never existed, then why did so many historians say it did for so long? Weren't there entire books written on the subject? Who has the authority to say that all those historians were wrong? And if the current consensus among the "experts" in medieval history is to reject feudalism, why is it still presented as reality in nearly every medieval history textbook?

The best way to answer these questions is to engage in a little historiography. Let's begin with a look at the origin and evolution of the term "feudalism."

A Post-Medieval What, Now?

The first thing to understand about the word "feudalism" is that it was never used during the Middle Ages. The term was invented by 16th- and 17th-century scholars to describe a political system of several hundred years earlier. This makes "feudalism" a post-medieval construct.

There's nothing inherently wrong with "constructs." They help us understand alien ideas in terms more familiar to our modern thought processes. The phrases "Middle Ages" and "medieval" are constructs, themselves. (After all, medieval people didn't think of themselves as living in a "middle" age -- they thought they were living in the now, just like we do.) Medievalists may not like the way the term "medieval" is used as an insult, or how absurd myths of past customs and behavior are commonly attributed to the Middle Ages, but most are confident that the use of "middle ages" and "medieval" to describe the era as in between the ancient and early modern eras is satisfactory, however fluid the definition of all three time frames may be.

But "medieval" has a fairly clear meaning based on a specific, easily-defined viewpoint. "Feudalism" cannot be said to have the same.

Continued on page two: Where's the Fief?

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