So many theories, revisions, and counterrevisions have been proposed to explain the term feudalism that it has become like Potter Stewart's definition of pornography: we may not know what it is, but we know it when we see it. Some, taking a broad definition of feudalism, have seen it everywhere from ancient Egypt to the American South. Others, using a narrow definition, have seen feudalism only in medieval western Europe, Japan of the shoguns, and, possibly, nineteenth-century Ethiopia. A very strict definition is required for the term to have any real meaning or for a discussion of it to have any coherence.
Feudalism in this narrow sense is based on the historical reality of the area between the Loire and Rhine Rivers during the tenth and eleventh centuries. From this heartland feudalism spread to western Germany, parts of Italy and Spain, and above all, England. It is only by analogy that the term applies to other societies, such as that of Japan. Feudalism was essentially the extreme privatization of the government functions of defense, administration, and justice. The mechanism for putting these functions into private hands and paying for them was the fief, usually an estate with dependent peasants to work it, granted to the holder, or vassal, by a lord, or seigneur, in return for military service. The fief could sometimes be a cash payment, hence our word fee. In either case the fief was central to the concept of feudalism, the term itself coming from feudum, the medieval Latin word for "fief." Having parceled out land, the right of command (the ban), and considerable military force, the only thing that could prevent total anarchy was an interlocking series of oaths tying all vassals to their lords in a contract of mutual protection and cooperation. Theoretically at least, all vassals had a lord, except for the king, the ultimate lord.
Several historical factors account for this development. After the death of
Charlemagne, during the ninth century Carolingian governance broke down in a series of vicious civil wars, leaving the realm prey to devastating attacks from
Magyars, and Saracens that lasted through the tenth century. Under these blows the economy was so disrupted that Carolingian rulers had little means to pay for defense, or anything else. Defense from hit-and-run attacks had to be local in any case, and power began to pass into the hands of local nobles who could provide the people under their care with protection and justice.
During the tenth century these nobles increasingly relied on heavily armored horsemen to provide the protection. The expense of such an arm was enormous. It takes about 120 hours of skilled labor to construct a coat of mail (hauberk) and up to 200 hours to produce a sword. To support men armed with hauberk, shield, helmet, sword, and lance required specially bred and trained horses, and each cavalryman would need several of these expensive beasts. The skill to handle horse and arms in combat demanded intensive training from childhood. ("He who has stayed at school till the age of twelve and never ridden a horse is fit only to be a priest" was the medieval assessment.) The most powerful lords needed many cavalry men, and the answer to providing for them was the fief, an estate with peasants numerous enough to provide for at least one armored horseman. In return for the fief the horseman swore an oath of homage and fealty to his lord, thus becoming his vassal. Possessing the wealth necessary to fight in this style elevated the status of the cavalryman so that he became a member of a military and social elite, a true "knight."
If the knight was the blood of the system, the
castle was the skeleton. Local
fortifications were expensive, and by the early eleventh century a major feature of medieval warfare. The typical military operation was the
siege, not the cavalry charge. Consequently the lord who held a castle was powerful, whereas the great counts and dukes who controlled many such lords were so powerful that they could usually ignore their own lord, the king.
Such a system is generally seen pejoratively as barely controlled anarchy or a large-scale protection racket. Yet it provided the armed might to protect the still-fragile civilization of Europe and to throw the Muslims out of Sicily and Spain, seize the Holy Land, and begin the drive against the Slavs in the East. The long process of restoring public power, moreover, involved considerable give-and-take between monarchs and their most powerful vassals. The carefully modulated oaths that required the lord, even the king, to respect the privileges and rights of his vassals did much to shape the development of the modern European state, in which a sovereign's power is restricted by law. In this sense the Magna Carta is a very "feudal" document.
Strengths are also apparent in Japanese feudalism, the closest analogy to the European model. As imperial government declined after the ninth century, power devolved to a class of warriors, the
samurai (retainers). Like European vassals, samurai owed allegiance to their daimyo (lord), not to the central government. In return the daimyo provided his samurai with land, status, and protection. By the sixteenth century the daimyos used their powerful armies and strong castles to become independent rulers of autonomous states. When united under the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603, the samurai governed the country and imposed their own chivalric ethos on much of Japanese society. Japanese feudalism thus provided the strength necessary for Japan to fend off foreign rule until it could be modernized by the Meiji Restoration in 1867.
This sketch of European feudalism is something of a caricature: recognizable, but simplified and exaggerated. No one living during the so-called Age of Feudalism used the term, nor would recognize what we mean by it. The idea of a universal "system" is simply a modern construct meant to help us understand a complex society whose worldview was alien to ours. Even theoretically, feudalism involved only the aristocracy. At all times major elements of society had little to do with our concept of the feudal. These included peasants of every degree of status, townspeople and merchants who always played an underrated role, and members of the church. Even among the warrior aristocracy holding fiefs, family was probably of overwhelming importance. Even that most feudal of rulers,
William the Conqueror, relied on kinsmen, most notably his half brother and a pair of cousins, as his most trusted lieutenants. Their loyalty owed as much to blood as to fiefs and oaths. Within the realm of warfare—the raison d'être of feudalism—infantry, engineers, and mercenaries played important roles throughout the Middle Ages. Although elements of feudalism lasted until the
French Revolution, by the end of the thirteenth century feudal institutions had lost whatever predominance they once had.
Marc Bloch, Feudal Society (1964); Elizabeth A. R. Brown, "The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe," American Historical Review (1974): 1063-1088; Archibald R. Lewis, Knights and Samurai: Feudalism in Northern France and Japan (1974); Jean-Pierre Poly and Eric Bournazel, The Feudal Transformation: 900-1200 (1991).