Feudalism: Origins, Characteristics & Decline

A pastoral landscape featuring a grand feudal castle with multiple cylindrical towers and conical roofs surrounded by fortified walls, set atop a gentle hill overlooking a river. In the foreground, the golden hues of harvested fields dominate, with large, round hay bales scattered about. Peasants are seen tending to the fields and haystacks, while a group of knights on horseback patrols the area. A lone thatched-roof cottage sits near the fields, and the scene is set against a backdrop of distant hills under a soft, cloudy sky.
A feudal castle and its grounds that are being cultivated by peasants and patrolled by knights — a common landscape during the Middle Ages. © CS Media.

Feudalism was a political, economic and social system that existed in Europe between the 9th and 15th centuries. Its name comes from the Latin word “feodum” or “feudum”, which was used during the Medieval period to describe a fief — a piece of land held in exchange for service or labor. The feudal system revolved around a series of allegiances and obligations between the people who owned land, directly or indirectly, and those who worked for them.

Origins of the feudal system

The Roman Empire had been a dominant force in Europe for centuries, but it was hard to control and it split into two: the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire. Unlike the former, the latter began to weaken due to internal strife, economic decline, and invasions by barbarian tribes. These were tribes that didn’t speak Latin and that lived on the outskirts of the Empire. They began to attack the Roman borders and made their way to Rome and other major cities.

Because of the invasions, the Romans were forced to leave their homes and had to move on. In many cases, they went from towns to rural areas, looking for both safety and work. They found these in the fiefs: agrarian properties that were surrounded by tall and strong walls, where peasants were employed by a landlord to work on his land or on his castle. Eventually, many such fiefs emerged, and Europe’s population began to fall under the feudal lords’ control.

The three estates of feudal society

At the time, European society adopted the “estate system”, for it was divided into three well-defined estates: the clergy, the nobility and the commonfolk.

The clergy was comprised of the representatives of the Holy Roman Church, who were in charge of religious ceremonies and the expansion of Catholic faith. They made allegiances with political leaders, even barbarians, to make sure that as many people as possible converted to Christianity. For example, an agreement with Pepin the Short, king of the Carolingian Empire, gave hundreds of acres of land in the Italian Peninsula to the Church. Those who inhabited these realms had to become Catholics, or else they would be punished.

The nobility accumulated power because their lands were in high demand by those fleeing the barbarians. Princes, knights and noblemen with access to land suddenly welcomed an influx of peasants. Meanwhile, kings lost their relevance, because power was decentralized in the hands of many feudal lords.

The commonfolk were mostly made up of peasants who, in exchange for work and protection in the fiefs, became serfs. Unlike slaves, who followed their owners wherever they went, serfs were tied to the land — if a land exchanged hands, so did the serf, who could remain there, working for the new feudal lord. The workers were supposed to show gratitude to their lord and they mostly did it. In addition, due to the influence of the Church, serfs expected to go to Paradise after dying, as a reward for their good work and good behavior on Earth.

A peasant gifting his feudal lord with an assortment of fruits, as a token of his gratitude while other peasants watch and pray nearby.
A peasant gifting his feudal lord with an assortment of fruits, as a token of his gratitude while other peasants watch and pray nearby. © CS Media.

Feudal society, thus, was characterized by a lack of mobility. In other words, born a nobleman, always a nobleman; born a peasant, always a peasant. This hierarchy enshrined a system of inequality that would outlive all fiefs.

Suzerainty and vassalage

At the top of the feudal society, were the feudal lords with the most land. Yet they would never have been able to control and economically exploit vast expanses of territory, unless they enlisted the help of others. As a result of this, the hallmark of feudalism was an arrangement based upon suzerainty and vassalage.

Within a ceremony known as “homage”, the owner of a land, called a suzerain, would donate a part of his fief to a vassal. The vassal was supposed not only to care for the land, maintaining or increasing its harvest, but also to pledge loyalty to his suzerain and give him advice. Should the need arise, vassals had to take part in his suzerain’s wars — after all, they were for the security of both of them. Eventually, those who were vassals accumulated enough land to become suzerains themselves, assigning fiefs much like when they first got their land.

Suzerains were masters of their domains, creating laws and dispensing justice. They collected tributes such as the tithe — a 10% tax that went to the Church — and regulated any commercial activities that took place in the fiefs. As feudalism reached its final days, these activities would become ever more common.

A vassal presenting a sword to a suzerain as a symbol of loyalty. From then on, a series of mutual obligations tied one to the other.
A vassal presenting a sword to a suzerain as a symbol of loyalty. From then on, a series of mutual obligations tied one to the other. © CS Media.

Feudal economy

The economy of the fiefs was agricultural and based on self-sufficiency. There were no industries at the time, and serfs had to cultivate land to feed themselves and their lords. Because it was unsafe to wander outside the rural fortifications, all goods were produced and were consumed within the fiefs. Consequently, commerce plummeted and money had little value in a feudal structure.

In order to increase productivity in the fields, the workers began to use domesticated animals and tools such as the plough, with blades that dig the soil so that seeds can be planted. Also, they employed a system of land rotation, making sure that a part of the land rested while another was cultivated. These practices reduced worker fatigue and avoided land degradation due to overuse.

The decline of feudalism

By the 14th century, Europe went through a crisis that would make the feudal system largely irrelevant. A series of processes weakened the power of the feudal lords while increased the importance of urban areas.

At first, agricultural innovations boosted production, and the surplus of food had to be sold, because it was more than enough for consumption within the fiefs. At the same time, Europeans who got back from the Crusades introduced Eastern spices to the continent, such as pepper, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. The combination of agricultural surpluses and new products fostered the creation of new urban centers, the medieval boroughs, where commerce thrived. Therefore, some people finally had an incentive to leave the fiefs.

Rural exodus would increase due to wars and diseases, too. Conflicts such as the Hundred Years’ War and the Reconquista, the expulsion of the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula, displaced many people. In addition, the Black Death wreaked havoc in Europe. It was a pandemic caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium, easily spread by fleas and by contact with other people’s bodily fluids, that caused pneumonic plague and was highly deadly. Facing war and disease, many serfs moved away from their lands and towards safer places, including in the boroughs.

Over time, feudal lords lost their importance while the bourgeoisie acquired more and more economic power. The power vacuum facilitated the rise of kings, who were financed by merchants and, therefore, could build up standing armies. The concentration of power in the hands of the kings helped to end feudalism and inaugurate a new political system, known as the modern state system.




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