What is Feudalism?

   Feudalism and feudal system were not terms used in the Middle Ages, but were terms that sixteenth-century lawyers used to denote the combination of laws and customs governing land tenure known as the fief. Karl Marx used the term feudalism to mean an economic system based on serfdom, considering it a stage in economic development that followed slavery and preceded capitalism. Many historians now suggest abandoning the term entirely because it is a later and inaccurate construct. Susan Reynolds in Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (1994) has argued that the narrow definition of feu­dalism based on the idea of a contract between the lord and vassal with the granting of the fief cannot be found in the documents of the time and that when words like feodum (translated as fief) appear, histo­rians have interpreted them in light of the modern definition of this type of property transfer. The property transfers in pre-twelfth century Europe, says Reynolds, owed more to ecclesiastical usage than they did to lords and vassals and their need for military service. Rather than originating in customary law, the concept of fiefs and vassals was part of twelfth-century academic law, and legal thinkers drew heavily on ecclesiastical practice as they rationalized the property transfer of the fief.

   Other historians have argued that concentrating only on vassals and fiefs leaves out broader interpretations of feudalism. For instance, the very ceremony of homage and the giving of the fief publicly cemented a relationship between two politically and socially powerful men. In the period between the de­cline of the Carolingian Empire and the establishment of a strong Capetian monarchy, a period of "feudal anarchy" replaced central government. The fief was only part of the power struggles that occurred. Furthermore, the argument goes, the connection between fief and vassal is not a necessary one. The lord-vassal relationship existed without fiefs or property connected with it. Rather than limiting a discussion of feudalism to the vassal-fief connection, these historians prefer the broader approach first explored by Marc Bloch in Feudal Society.