The Rise Of The Feudal System In Europe

601 words | 3 page(s)

Feudalism was the dominant social system in Europe from the ninth to fifteenth centuries. Its origins can be traced to medieval France and the decentralization of the Carolingian Empires in particular. The most conservative definition of feudalism is an array of reciprocal military and legal agreements in which land is granted in exchange for fealty and service. Specifically, a lord, a member of the landholding nobility, grants land to a vassal, who pledges loyalty and military service in turn. The land granted in this exchange is known as a fief. Many scholars extend that definition to medieval society at large, in which people of all social classes engage in the feudal system, not merely those among the warrior nobility. Indeed, features of feudalism are evident in the land dealings of the clergy and the manorial system, which bound the peasantry, or serfs, to the land of a vassal in exchange for protection. We see remnants of feudal society in the present day, but we may also examine the origins of feudalism to gain a greater appreciation for the ways in which forms of governance rise and fall.

The feudal system is largely the product of two older practices: the beneficiary system and the practice of commendation. In the beneficiary system, the king gifted his own land to kinsmen and servants. Oftentimes, that land had been surrendered to the king by lesser nobility who then acted as tenants and paid rent in exchange for protection. Commendation was an exchange in which the subordinate pledged an oath of fealty and service to his lord without relinquishing his titles or landholdings. The marriage of the two practices give us the necessary components of feudalism: oaths of fealty and service in exchange for protection and land.

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Feudalism took hold in the Frankish landholdings of the Carolingian Empires because they lacked any sort of stable bureaucratic underpinning to manage a reward system for the warrior elite. Hence, the utilization and combination of earlier forms of loyalty contracts. By instating these obligations and making the historic transfer of fiefs hereditary (the vassal’s progeny would inherit the military and legal obligations, lands, and serfs of his father), feudalism worked as a stabilizing structure in medieval Europe which occupied members of the lesser classes, especially the warriors of the nobility who might otherwise run rampant or shift loyalty. Interesting, the inception of feudalism further decentralized European kingdoms by continually removing power from those in the upper echelons of society and placing it with lower vassals.

Some twentieth century historians have rejected the modern usage of the phrase “feudalism” as anachronistic and misleading. They contend that feudalism is a modern construction which conveys a false unity with regard to forms of governance. Further, the ideas put forth in history books do not depict feudalism and its impacts on medieval daily life with any sort of historical accuracy.

Along with the rise of absolutist power among the monarchs of Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries came the demise of the feudal system. Legal power was reconsolidated centrally, but the evidence of feudalism remained as evidenced by the various royal court systems, peerage structures, and practices of benevolence on the part of various monarchs. Serfdom was done away with and France abolished feudalism entirely during the French Revolution. By the turn of the twentieth century, it was an entirely outdated social and legal structure in the Western world.

  • “History of Feudalism in Europe.” Infoplease. Accessed April 25, 2016.
  • “Feudal System: An Overview of Feudalism.” Feudalism in Europe. Accessed April 25, 2016.

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