Feudalism

Investiture of a knight (miniature from the statutes of the Order of the Knot, founded in 1352 by Louis I of Naples).
Castle – a traditional symbol of a feudal society (Orava Castle in Slovakia).

Feudalism was a combination of legal and military customs in medieval Europe that flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries. Broadly defined, it was a way of structuring society around relationships derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labour.Although derived from the Latin word feodum or feudum (fief),[1] then in use, the term feudalism and the system it describes were not conceived of as a formal political system by the people living in the Middle Ages.[2] The classic definition, by François-Louis Ganshof (1944),[3] feudalism describes a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs.[3]

A broader definition of feudalism, as described by Marc Bloch (1939), includes not only the obligations of the warrior nobility but also those of all three estates of the realm: the nobility, the clergy, and the peasantry bound by manorialism; this is sometimes referred to as a "feudal society". Since the publication of Elizabeth A. R. Brown's "The Tyranny of a Construct" (1974) and Susan Reynolds's Fiefs and Vassals (1994), there has been ongoing inconclusive discussion among medieval historians as to whether feudalism is a useful construct for understanding medieval society.[4][5][6][7][8][9]

Definition

There is no commonly accepted modern definition of feudalism, at least among scholars.[4][7] The adjective feudal was coined in the 17th century, and the noun feudalism, often used in a political and propaganda context, was not coined until the 19th century,[4] from the French féodalité (feudality), itself an 18th-century creation.

In a classic definition by François-Louis Ganshof (1944),[3] feudalism describes a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility, revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs,[3] though Ganshof himself noted that his treatment related only to the "narrow, technical, legal sense of the word".

A broader definition, as described in Marc Bloch's Feudal Society (1939),[10] includes not only the obligations of the warrior nobility but those of all three estates of the realm: the nobility, the clergy, and those living by their labour, most directly the peasantry bound by manorialism; this order is often referred to as "feudal society", echoing Bloch's usage.

Outside of a European context,[4] the concept of feudalism is often used by analogy, most often in discussions of feudal Japan under the shōguns, and sometimes Zagwe dynasty in medieval Ethiopia,[11] which had some feudal characteristics (sometimes called "semifeudal").[12][13] Some have taken the feudalism analogy further, seeing feudalism (or traces of it) in places as diverse as Spring and Autumn period in China, ancient Egypt, the Parthian empire, the Indian subcontinent and the Antebellum and Jim Crow American South.[11] Wu Ta-k'un argued that China's fengjian, being kinship-based and tied to land controlled by the king, were entirely distinct from feudalism. This despite the fact that in translation fengjian is frequently paired in both directions with feudal.[14]

The term feudalism has also been applied—often inappropriately or pejoratively—to non-Western societies where institutions and attitudes similar to those of medieval Europe are perceived to prevail.[15] Some historians and political theorists believe that the term feudalism has been deprived of specific meaning by the many ways it has been used, leading them to reject it as a useful concept for understanding society.[4][5]