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For general overview of "feudalism", see the Wikipedia article.

Since the 1970s, several scholars, notably Elizabeth Brown and Susan Reynolds, have argued that the term "feudalism", as it has been used by most historians, has been more misleading than useful. They contend that it imparts a false sense of uniformity to the period, since strictly lord-vassal relationships in Europe only existed between some of the people in some places, during some of the middle ages. Paul Halsall of the Internet History Sourcebook writes that:

Reynolds argued that recent historians had been too ready to read back 11th- and 12th-century legal texts (which do use feudal) terminology onto a much more variated 9th- and 10th century society and had ended up creating a "feudal world" which simply did not exist, or which, at most, described small parts of France for short periods. Most reviewers have found Reynold's arguments compelling.[1]

Halsall notes, though, that Reynolds was attacking the concept of feudalism used by recent historians, not the older social and economic, or Marxist investigations into feudalism.[2]

Historical materialist treatment of feudalism

The primary aim of historical materialism has been to understand the capitalist mode of production. The interest of Marx, Engels, and other historical materialists in the Europe of the middle ages has primarily been to find its characteristic production relations, and how they arose from the production relations of ancient slave society and were eventually transformed into capitalistic production relations. The modes of production should not be characterized simplistically: in ancient "slave societies", there were probably more free and semi-free peasants and artisans than slaves, and "surplus labour was realized more in the form of rent and tax than as the unpaid toil of the captive slave"; and in feudal Europe, there were some slaves on landlords' estates as late as the tenth century on the continent and the eleventh century in England, and although serfs were numerous, so were peasants of free status.[3] Thus it is contended (eg., by R H Hilton) that Marxist interest in "feudalism" should be on its developmental significance; it can not be seen as a static system consisting almost entirely of landlords and enserfed peasants.


  • Demesne(pronounced /dɨˈmn/ di-MAYN) was the land, not necessarily all contiguous to the manor house, which was retained by a lord of the manor for his own use and support, under his own management. (From Old French demeine ultimately from Latin dominus, "lord, master of a household")[4]
  • Fief. A piece of land granted by a lord to a vassal in return for military service or the giving of aid and counsel.[5]
  • Vassal. Originally, among the Germanic tribes, a person who gave his loyalty, service and counsel to a lord "in the expectation of gifts from the profits of war – that is, plunder." In the middle ages, the vassal's main recompense was protection, and control of a piece of land.[6]

Political economy of feudalism

The difficulty of long-distance travel and communication, and the localized nature of the economy, mitigated in favor of lord-vassal relationships, rather than allegiance to a state or nation, being the basis of cohesion. The lord-vassal relationship "was ideologically reinforced by religious institutions (bishops and abbeys, themselves feudal lanowners)". The lord exercised his prerogative mainly through jurisdiction. He had the right to hold court for his vassals, "who attended it as suitors, advisers, and declarers of custom".[7]

The relationship between a lord and his vassals was not the same as the relationship between him and his peasants. Vassals were free men, part of the military aristocracy. By contrast, "Even peasants of free status had little opportunity for freedom of movement and freedom to dispose of their property."[8]

Serfs (unfree peasants) were required to to do unpaid labor on the lord's demesne, and pay "various dues in kind, or even money," which were levied on the peasant's family holding.[9] "The decentralization of feudal power meant that the petty lords of villages were able to tax all inhabitants (whether tenants or not), to force them to grind their corn at the lord's mill, press their grapes in his wine press, bake their bread in his oven – all for a consideration."[10] They also paid him money fines if found guilty of an offense by his court, and fees on various occasions.

The social product consisted mainly of food. Most of it was never bought or sold. Of the food produced on peasants' land, most was consumed in the peasant household or transferred in kind from peasant to lord.[11] Of that produced on the demesne, "a considerable proportion was directly consumed in aristocratic households, in the lavish establishments of high ecclesiastics and in the frequent feasting of retainers."[12] However, there did exist a market economy of smaller but still significant size. This was particularly true after the eleventh century, when relatively peaceful conditions, a larger population, and some technological progress enabled a larger surplus to be produced. Some of the surplus was used by the ruling class to purchase silks, spices, Mediterranean fruits, and wines. These items embodied large values in small packages, and "in a stable feudal society could not be obtained, or at any rate only sporadically, by means of warfare and plunder."[13] Grain, oil, woolen textiles, and wood were other items of international trade. Cities such as Venice, Cologne, Bruges, and London grew up on international trade routes. "Venice, Florence, Milan and Genoa may have had about 100,000 inhabitants at the end of the thirteenth century; Paris may have had 200,000; London 50,000." England's urban population during the middle ages "possibly fluctuated between 10 and 15 per cent," and specialized areas like the Low Countries "could have more than 30 per cent."[14] However, R H Hilton says that tension between the landed aristocracy and the urban merchant class did not cause the demise of the feudal system. He says that the social structure in the cities "mirrored rather than contrasted with the countryside", and the bourgeois elites "fitted snugly into the heirarchy of feudal lordship."[15] Rather, the basic conflict in Europe in the middle ages was between peasant and landlord:

The fundamental antagonism in feudal society was between landlords and peasants. The conflict was mostly concealed, sometimes overt as in the great peasant risings of the late Middle Ages. It was fundamental in another sense. Peasants, in their communities and as controllers of the self-contained family enterprise, were not economically dependent on lords. For this reason their potentialities for resistance were not negligible. Hence, if the level of rent was determined not so much by market forces as by the relative strength of the antagonisms, a strengthening of peasant resistance reduced the level of rent transferred to the ruling class – and of tax to the state. This was one of the roots of the crisis of the feudal order.[16]

"When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?" — John Ball, spokesman for the English peasantry in the second half of the fourteenth century.[17]


  1. Halsall, "Sourcebook".
  2. Halsall, "Sourcebook."
  3. R H Hilton, "feudal society", in Tom Bottomore, ed., A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, 1991.
  4. Demesne is a variant of domaine with an unetymological s inserted. See http://dictionary.reference.com/search?r=2&q=demesne, http://cdict.giga.net.tw/q/demesne; Cassell's Latin Dictionary, Marchant & Charles
  5. R H Hilton, "feudal society".
  6. R H Hilton, "feudal society".
  7. R H Hilton, "feudal society"
  8. R H Hilton, "feudal society".
  9. R H Hilton, "feudal society".
  10. R H Hilton, "feudal society".
  11. R H Hilton, "feudal society".
  12. R H Hilton, "feudal society".
  13. R H Hilton, "feudal society".
  14. R H Hilton, "feudal society".
  15. R H Hilton, "feudal society".
  16. R H Hilton, "feudal society".
  17. I owe this quote, as with most of the rest of this section, to R H Hilton, "feudal society".


Asterisk (*) denotes work used as an immediate source in writing this article.

On paper

* R H Hilton, "Feudal society", in Tom Bottomore, ed., A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, 1991.


* Paul Halsall, Medieval History Sourcebook Has a discussion of the state of the term "feudalism" in light of Elizabeth Brown's and Susan Reynolds' work. Also has links to texts on feudalism available on the internet.