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European Feudalism

History Of The Concept

All the definitions of feudalism were born in the ideological conflicts of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution and the revolutionary politics that swept out of France across Europe in the nineteenth century. They have been shaped by the ideologies of economic liberalism, political egalitarianism, democracy, and socialism, particularly the Marxist variety. They have also been shaped by nineteenth-century philosophies of history that were created in the same ideological environment. Since the eighteenth century the invidious meanings of feudal in popular polemical usage and the attempts by historians to give the term a technical, professional meaning have never been far apart.

The eighteenth century.

On 11 August 1789, the French revolutionary National Assembly abolished the "feudal regime" (régime féodal). A jurist who was asked to explain to an assembly committee what exactly the act had abolished replied that it included not only rights belonging to or derived from fiefs properly speaking but all lordly rights, including rights to peasants' labor (corvées), crop sharing (champart), rents, monopolies (banalités), and all rights of justice "for rights of justice follow the fief and there is no fief without rights of justice."

In abolishing these lordly rights, especially those of justice, the assembly took the final logical step in a program that royal jurists had been promoting since the late sixteenth century—to establish that all rights of justice and command belonged to the state (res publica), were embodied in the king, and were exercised by royal commission or grant. If that were so, then all claims on the wealth or work of others, if they were not freely contracted, were likewise public powers held of the king. Once "the people," represented in the assembly, came to embody the state, they could reclaim what had once been alienated.

During the eighteenth century the two components of the "feudal regime," lordly rights over dependent tenants and lordly rights to positions of authority, had been defended by appeals to history. This is hardly surprising, for landlords pressed for funds were increasingly hiring specialists, called "feudists," to examine their ancient muniments and discover dues and rights long forgotten. Two diametrically opposed versions of the historical record emerged. One, represented notably by L'abbé Dubos in his Histoire critique de l'établissement de la monarchie françoise dans les Gaules (1734; Critical history of the establishment of the French monarchy in Gaul), argued that the original Frankish kings were appointed by the Roman emperors and themselves appointed the nobility to its positions and commissioned nobles to exercise their powers. Against Dubos, Boulainvilliers and, especially, Montesquieu, in his L'esprit des lois (1748; The spirit of laws), argued, on the contrary, that the Frankish kings and nobility with their followers had come as conquerors. The nobility, whose eminence was recognized by both grants of fiefs and participation in the assemblies that these authors believed were the precursors of the Estates, had from the beginning exercised justice over their subordinates. As they constructed their historical narratives, Boulainvilliers and Montesquieu stopped at many of the way stations that would continue to be the standard monuments of the history of feudalism in twentieth-century textbooks: the Germanic war bands described by Tacitus, the early Frankish antrustiones (royal followers), Carolingian oaths of fidelity, the capitulary of Quierzy, which made noble offices hereditary, and many others.

By 1789 the debate over the historical origin of noble rights had also been transformed by a dramatic change in the concept of liberty. For Boulainvilliers and Montesquieu, liberty meant the rights that distinguished one person or group from others, the meaning it had had since the Middle Ages. Liberty for them was what the modern world calls "privilege." It was in this sense that Charles Forman declared his translation of Boulainvilliers into English to be "for the instruction of … British lovers of liberty." For the revolutionaries of 1789, in contrast, féodalité was the antithesis of liberté, which could be realized only by equality before the law. The only distinctions the law could legitimately recognize were differences in property, excluding all those rights of exaction and justice that aristocrats had claimed as their property. Property was the realm of "private" activity; justice, taxation, and all powers of command were "public."

When combined with the earlier historical narratives, this revolutionary redefinition of liberty bequeathed two fundamental themes to all nineteenth-and twentieth-century historical accounts of "feudalism." First, feudalism involved the devolution of "public" power into "private" hands, a process that happened when the ruler granted such powers to his or her followers, or when the followers usurped them, or when the state, embodied in royal power, broke up. The historical problem became to discover exactly when and how this devolution occurred and how the "feudal state" was held together. Second, in the feudal regime all rents and obligations that were not freely contracted, whether in money, in kind, or in labor services, were the product of the political, social, and military domination of the strong over the weak, of lords over peasants. Again the historical problem was to discover how and when this developed.

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

It was in nineteenth-century Germany that these two themes diverged, each eventually becoming the domain of an academic discipline as well as a polemical model. After the Napoleonic wars, aristocratic privileges and princely governments were partially restored in the lands of the old Holy Roman Empire. At the same time, national unity was more than ever the fervent desire of many intellectuals. Legal and constitutional historians in the developing universities sought to reconcile the two—the status quo and the desire for unity—by making "feudal government," Lehnwesen, the fundamental character of the old Germanic state. By defining Lehnwesen in a narrow technical sense as the law of fiefs (and inventing a new name for it) and at the same time universalizing it into a constitutional form, they sought to cleanse the idea of feudalism of its embarrassing polemical connotations inherited from the French Revolution. The narratives they developed were essentially variations on Montesquieu's, although they also debated whether the original German nations were unitary states of ruler and subjects (Waitz, vol. 6, pp. 357–367), or already "feudalized," as earlier historians had claimed, and if they were unitary, how and why the system of fiefs developed with its fragmentation of state power. They resolved the old debate between the "Romanist" origin of noble powers and the "Germanic" by making the "institutional" side of feudalism Roman and the "personal," Germanic.

Whatever the differences among historians, all were convinced that the "feudal state" was an organized hierarchy of fiefs and powers, from the king down to the most minor lord. The "feudal pyramid" was born. Thus they gave the German princes historical legitimacy while still asserting the existence of a "-German constitution." William Stubbs adopted this German definition in his three-volume Constitutional History of England (1874–1878), asserting that William the Conqueror brought feudalism "full blown" from France. It has remained the "technical" meaning of feudalism in British historiography ever since.

Meanwhile, philosophers of history and political polemicists, most notably Karl Marx, sought to place feudalism among the stages in the historical development of human society. For Marx, the critical questions to ask in defining each stage were: Who owns the means of production? And what are the class relations to those means of production? In the stage of feudalism, landlords are the owners, and they use political and military force to extract surpluses from their peasant subjects. This conception of feudalism was the required view in the Soviet world. Since World War II it has also had a large following among western European historians. Non-Marxist or semi-Marxist "stage narratives" of the origins of feudalism have also proliferated, combining the story of the subjection of the peasantry to political and military force with various aspects of the other "technical" feudal narrative (Poly and Bournazel; Bisson).

Problems with all conceptions of feudalism have come from the discovery that before the thirteenth century fiefs had an insignificant place in aristocratic landholding; that, other than in England, peasants owed few if any labor services and in some places owned some of their land and held the rest by rental contracts; that the conception of serfdom varied widely from place to place and changed radically over time; that the relations among landholding, lordship, and fidelity likewise varied widely in space and time. Historians have questioned whether and in what ways one can speak of law and legal institutions in Europe before the revival of Roman law in the twelfth century. They have also questioned whether one can speak in any meaningful way of an early medieval state. This and much else has led some historians to argue that the concept no longer has a place in historical discourse.


Bisson, Thomas N. "The 'Feudal Revolution.'" Past and Present 142 (February 1994): 6–42.

Bloch, Marc Léopold Benjamin. Feudal Society. Translated by L. A. Manyon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Brunner, Otto. "'Feudalismus,' ein Beitrag zur Begriffsgeshichte." Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur in Mainz, Abhandlungen der geistes-und sozialwissenschaftlichen Klasse no. 10. Mainz, 1958. Translated as "Feudalism: The History of a Concept." In Lordship and Community in Medieval Europe: Selected Readings, edited by Fredric L. Cheyette, 32–61. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1968.

Cheyette, Fredric L. "Some Reflections on Violence, Reconciliation, and the Feudal Revolution." In Conflict in Medieval Europe: Changing Perspectives on Society and Culture, edited by Warren C. Brown and Piotr Górecki. Aldershot, U.K., and Burlington Vt.: Ashgate, 2003.

Coulborn, Rushton, comp. Feudalism in History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1956.

Mazauric, Claude. "Note sur l'emploi de 'régime féodal' et de 'féodalité' pendant la Révolution Française." In Sur la Révolution Française: Contributions à l'histoire de la révolution bourgeoise, by Claude Mazauric, 119–134. Paris: Éditions sociales, 1988.

Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat, baron de. L'esprit des lois. Books 28–31. Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pleiade, 1958.

Pollock, Frederick, and Frederic William Maitland. The History of English Law before the Time of Edward I. 2nd ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1905.

Poly, Jean-Pierre, and Éric Bournazel. La mutation féodale, Xe–XIIe siècles. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1980.

Reynolds, Susan. Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Stubbs, William. Constitutional History of England. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1874–1878.

Waitz, Georg. Deutsche Staats-Wörterbuch. Vol. 6. Edited by Johann Caspar Bluntschli and Karl Brater. Stuttgart, Germany: Expedition des Staats-Wörterbuchs, 1861.

Wunder, Heide. "Einleitung." In Feudalismus: Zehn Aufsätze, compiled by Heide Wunder, 10–76. Munich: Nymphenburger Verlagshandlung, 1974.

Fredric L. Cheyette

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