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European Feudalism

History Of The Concept, Bibliography

In everyday speech, f eudal can mean "aristocratic" (in contrast to democratic), "sumptuous," "reactionary," "hierarchic" (as opposed to egalitarian), "primitive," "medieval," or simply "despotic" or "oppressive" when speaking about political, social, or economic regimes. Since the nineteenth century it has been used this way, most often as a term of opprobrium, in English, German, and the Romance languages. Feudalism in the sense of either a period or a regime dominated by lords or domination by people who possess financial or social power and prestige is a relatively late arrival. It first appeared in French in 1823, Italian in 1827, English in 1839, and in German only in the second half of the nineteenth century. What it refers to, however, had already appeared as la féodalité in the Comte de Boulainvilliers's Histoire des anciens Parlements de France (1737; published in English as An Historical Account of the Antient Parliaments of France or States-General of the Kingdom, 1739). The expression, derived from seventeenth-century legal treatises, was translated as "feodal [ sic ] government" in the English version and popularized as both "feudal government" and "the feudal system" in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776).

As a term of art used by historians, the adjective feudal and the noun feudalism may mean many things, most of them variants on one or more of three basic conceptions. First, they meant the legal rules, rights, and obligations that governed the holding of fiefs (feuda in medieval Latin), especially in the Middle Ages. This was the only meaning of feudal in any language before the eighteenth century. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries this definition was extended to encompass the nature of government at the time when fiefs were a prominent form of landholding, in particular one in which those who held fiefs exercised powers of jurisdiction and constraint either by their own customary right or by grant or usurpation from the king or emperor. In this definition such grants and usurpations are often referred to as "the privatization of public powers." Second, they meant a social economy in which landed lords dominated a subject peasantry from whom they demanded rents, labor services, and various other dues and over whom they exercised justice. This was essentially the meaning given to the term by Adam Smith and later adopted by Karl Marx. Third, they meant a form of sociopolitical organization dominated by a military class or Estate, members of which were connected to each other by ties of lordship and honorable subordination ("vassalage") and in turn dominated a subject peasantry. Lordship gave protection and defense; vassalage required service, especially service in arms. This personal relationship inseparably involved a tenurial relationship as well, the vassal holding land of his lord. Feudal domination therefore took shape within an economy where the primary source of wealth was land and its products. It was supported by a complex of religious ideas promoted by a hierarchical church that was integrated into the structure of lordship.

These three conceptions are clearly related. Modern historians may insist that one or another or some combination is the "true" or "correct" definition or may discuss one while recognizing that alternative definitions exist. German historians in the later nineteenth century invented separate terms for these different concepts: Lehnwesen for the first; Feudalismus for the second and third. British and American historians may refer to the first as feudalism and the second as manorialism, while the third may be called feudal society.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the English legal historian F. W. Maitland argued that "feudalism is an unfortunate word" that had been given an "impossible task" (Pollock and Maitland, vol. 1, pp. 66–67). And since the 1960s a number of historians, particularly in the United States and in England, have argued that the confusion caused by these different meanings is reason enough to ban the term from professional use. A more complex objection to the use of the term in any of its meanings has come from the difficulty historians have in reconciling the historical assumptions that lie behind all conceptions of feudalism with what they find in their detailed research into medieval social, political, and economic relationships. There has also been a shift in the academic discipline providing the tools to study medieval society. Almost all nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century students of the subject came to it from training in the law—Roman law on the Continent and the common law in England; their accounts were shaped by legal categories. In the second half of the twentieth century, especially in the United States, anthropology increasingly influenced the conceptual framework of medievalists and therefore the way in which they read the sources. In this light, they found many legal-institutional concepts wanting, among them the concept feudalism.

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