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Updated on July 28, 2017
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Varsha is an enthusiast writer who loves to share informational content. She loves to write about World History.

Introduction to Feudalism

The Frankish Empire founded by Charlemagne the Great included practically the whole of Western Europe except Spain and England. After his death in 814 AD, the empire broke up under his weak successors due to foreign invasions. During the turmoil of invasions, central government collapsed. Laws were not enforced, the strong robbed the weak and trade died. During this confusion of the centuries since the fall of Rome, various customs had been growing up to enable men to live despite turmoils. In the utter confusion of the 9th century, these customs developed into a pattern of life known as feudalism. It was the natural outgrowth of many institutions and customs of Roman and Teutonic origin.

Meaning of Feudalism

The term Feudalism is the combination of two words-'feudo' and 'vassalism'. Feudo is a German word which means 'fief', a piece of land and 'vassalism' means holding something from a supreme lord. Feudalism means that system of society where land holding is the basis of the whole society. In short, Feudalism was a brand of social relationship between land and man-Lord protecting the man and man doing service and reverence to the Lord.

Main Features

  1. Terra Regis-All Land belongs to King- According to this system, nobody except the king is the owner of the land. All those who have land get it directly or indirectly from the king. Those who held land directly from the king were called tenants-in-chief. The tenants-in-chief used to give their lands to others and this system of sub-infeudation(giving a portion of land to others) continued till it was held by the cultivators. So, everybody down from the cultivator to the tenant-in-chief was mere a land holder-a tenant. When a tenant died, his successor could not succeed unless he paid relief or succession duty. Similarly, if a tenant died without leaving an heir, the land reverted to the Lord.
  2. No Land without its Lord-In the feudal system, every piece of land belonged to some lord. The landholders from bottom to the top had to do several kinds of services to their respective immediate lords. There was not a single piece of land which was not held on some feudal principle.
  3. Commendation or Personal Services-A landholder in the feudal society had to do many personal services at regular intervals to his lord. He had to attend the knighting ceremony of the son of his lord and pay some money. He could not marry his sons and daughters without the approval of his Lord. The Lord protected the landholder and in return, the landholder agreed to do certain specific services to the lord.
  4. Lord's Privilege of Holding Court for his Immediate Landholders-Every landlord had the privilege of holding a court for his immediate landholders. For ex-king, the chief lord, held a court 'Curia Regis' to try tenants-in-chief. Similarly, tenants-in-chief and the manorial lords hold courts for their dependents.

Feudalism in France and England

Feudalism first came in France. In France, the Christian priests believed in the concept that people belonged to one of the three orders or estates depending upon the nature of their work. Thus, the three orders of the society were-the clergy, nobility and the peasantry.

The Clergy-The Bishops and clergymen constituted the first order. They guided the Christians. The church conducted many important ceremonies. The priests were not allowed to marry. Bishops formed the religious nobility. They had vast estates and lived in magnificent palaces. The Church collected one tenth share of whatever the peasants produced from their lands.

The Nobility-The nobles constituted the second order. They, in fact, played a central role in the social process. They controlled land. The king was the owner of the whole land in the kingdom. He allotted land to his noblemen. They were vassals of the king and were called his tenants-in-chief. The tenants-in-chief further allotted the land to sub tenants and this practice continued till it was held by the actual cultivators. In between the kings and cultivators, there were a series of lords and overlords. The nobles acted as judges, military captains and protectors of their tenants.

The Knights-There were frequent localized wars in Europe from the ninth century AD. There was a need of good cavalry. This increased the importance of a new section of people-the Knights. The Knights had almost similar links with the Lords, just as the latter had with the king. The Lord gave the Knight a piece of land(fief) and he promised to protect it.

The Peasants and Freemen-The vast majority of people belonged to the second order. There were two kinds of cultivators-(a) Free Peasants (b) Serfs. Below the landlords were the peasants and freemen. They held land from the lords on some contract but they were not bound to the soil after fulfilling the contract. They had to render military service to the land after some days. Sometimes, the king also imposed direct tax on them.

The Serfs-The serfs formed the bulk of the population in a manor. They were attached to the soil of the manor. Much of the produce of this land went to the Lord. They did not receive any wages for their work and could not leave the land without their Lords consent.

Feudalism in England-The feudal system was introduced in England In the 11th century when William, the French Duke of Normandy, conquered and occupied England. William ascended the English throne as William I. He had the land of England mapped and distributed it in parts to 180 Norman nobles who had migrated with him. The Lords became the tenants-in-chief or the vassals of the king and were expected to provide military aid to the king when required. The kings also began to gift their own land to knights who would serve the king just like other lords.

Spread of Feudalism

Feudalism spread from France to Spain, Italy and later Germany and eastern Europe. In England, the Frankish form was imposed by William-I after 1066 AD, although most of the elements of feudalism were already present in England. It was extended eastward into Slavic lands to the Marches(frontier provinces). It was adopted partially in Scandinavian countries. The important features of feudalism were similar everywhere but there existed definite national differences. Feudalism continued to exist in all parts of Europe until the end of the 14th century.

Defects of Feudalism

  • Feudalism was a centrifugal force. The king was the king of vassals not the king of all the people. Each feudal lord was a prince and the people living in his estate were completely under his control.
  • In the ideal feudal system where the knights were to be loyal to the immediate lords, there was a great possibility of the revolts of feudal lords.
  • Another defect was that it gave judicial powers to the Lord. Each lord acted as a judge for his tenants. For judges, it is essential that they must be impartial and should possess high legal qualifications. The feudal lords could never be expected to act impartially. Most of the lords were not even educated.
  • The position of the serfs under the feudal system was very deplorable. They were bound to the soil. They could not get justice from the royal courts.


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