Feudalism In Europe, Its Frankish Birth And English Development

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Feudalism,  A general Overview

Author:     Stubbs, William

 Feudalism: Its Frankish Birth And English Development

Feudalism is a social system of rights and duties based on land tenure and personal relationships in which land (and to a much lesser degree other sources of income) is held in fief by vassals from lords to whom they owe specific services and with whom they are bound by personal loyalty. In a broader sense, the term denotes "feudal society," a form of civilization that flourishes especially in a closed agricultural economy and has certain general characteristics besides the mere presence of lords, vassals, and fiefs. In such a society, those who fulfill official duties, whether civil or military, do so not for the sake of an abstract notion of "the state" or of public service but because of personal and freely accepted links with their overlord, receiving remuneration in the form of fiefs, which they hold hereditarily. Because various public functions are closely associated with the fief rather than with the person who holds it, public authority becomes fragmented and decentralized. Another aspect of feudalism is the manorial or seigniorial system in which landlords exercise over the un-free peasantry a wide variety of police, judicial, fiscal, and other rights.

Several of the great civilizations of the world have passed through a feudal period in the course of their history. Some of these feudalisms--for instance, the Japanese are indeed quite comparable with the feudalism of Western Europe and of the Latin East.

The origins of European feudalism are to be found in the early Frankish kingdom (8th century), when the granting of fiefs on the one hand and the establishment of personal vassal-lord bonds on the other were linked together. In earlier centuries one type of land grant had been the benefice, given for the lifetime of the tenant and at his request; but it was not until the second half of the 8th century that the benefice was linked generally with vassalage. Whereas previously grants of the Frankish kings to their followers had been in full ownership, the kings began to keep the ownership to themselves and to grant land only in benefice with a wide right of use and exploitation. Not only their own lands but also church lands were distributed. About the same time public functions were also being given in benefice to royal vassals. Various lesser lords quickly followed the king’s example.

Feudalism spread with the Frankish conquests into northern Italy, Spain, and Germany and later into the Slavic territories. The Normans took it to England in 1066 and to southern Italy and Sicily a few years later. From England, feudalism spread to Scotland and to Ireland. Finally the Near Eastern territories that the crusaders conquered were organized feudally.

Internally the system developed greatly in the course of the 9th century. Of particular importance was the transformation of the benefice into a hereditary fief. Royal power declined and local dynasties became, in fact, independent and started to build up small territorial states for themselves; often they were at war with each other. The church was largely feudalized. Secular lords, in return for homage, would invest bishops and abbots with their ecclesiastical offices and with the temporalities that went with them. In return, the bishops and abbots owed the secular lord various services. In the field of law and justice, feudalism meant replacing the ancient courts of local dignitaries by courts composed of the vassals of a common lord. The consequent dispersal and multiplication of courts made the judicial apparatus extremely complex.

From the 12th century onward feudalism came under attack from various rival forces. The centralized state with its salaried officials and its mercenary armies was being built on Roman ideas about sovereignty and the safeguard of public order; the relationship between subject and sovereign replaced that of vassal and lord as the basis of a well-ordered society. The towns, growing in economic power and even forming their own militias, was able to a large extent to impose their own concepts about society against those of the knights. Finally, the manorial system, the material basis of the knightly class, in the 12th and 13th centuries underwent a deep economic crisis.

Although feudalism by the end of the 14th century was no longer a political and social force, it had left its mark on European society. It exercised its greatest influence in the elaboration of modern forms of constitutional government. Ideas about consent to taxes and resistance to and defiance of the lord and the whole balance of rights and duties between lords and vassals played a great role in coloring the outlook of early representative institutions.


In European feudal society, a vassal's source of income, held from his lord in exchange for services. The fief constituted the central institution of feudal society. It normally consisted of land to which a number of un-free peasants were attached; the land was supposed to be sufficient to support the vassal and to secure his knight service for the lord. Its size varied greatly, according to the income it could provide. It has been calculated that a fief needed from 15 to 30 peasant families to maintain one knightly household. Fief sizes varied widely, ranging from huge estates and whole provinces to a plot of a few acres. Besides land, dignities and offices and money rents were also given in fief.


A Vassal in feudal society was one invested with a fief in return for services to an overlord. Some vassals did not have fiefs and lived at their lord's court as his household knights. Certain vassals who held their fiefs directly from the crown were tenants in chief and formed the most important feudal group, the barons. A fief held by tenants of these tenants in chief was called an arriere-fief, and, when the king summoned the whole feudal host, he was said to summon the ban et arriere-ban. There were female vassals as well; their husbands fulfilled their wives' services.

Under the feudal contract, the lord had the duty to provide the fief for his vassal, to protect him, and to do him justice in his court. In return, the lord had the right to demand the services attached to the fief (military, judicial, administrative) and a right to various "incomes" known as feudal incidents. Examples of incidents are relief, a tax paid when a fief was transferred to an heir or alienated by the vassal, and scutage, a tax paid in lieu of military service. Arbitrary arrangements were gradually replaced by a system of fixed dues on occasions limited by custom.

The vassal owed fealty to his lord. A breach of this duty was a felony, regarded as so heinous an offense that in England all serious crimes, even those that had nothing to do with feudalism proper, came to be called felonies, since, in a way, they were breaches of the fealty owed to the king as guardian of the public peace and order.

The vassals' rights over the fiefs grew larger and larger in course of time, and soon fiefs became hereditary in the sense that investiture could not be withheld from an heir who was willing to do homage. The rules of inheritance tended to safeguard an undivided fief and preferred the eldest among the sons (primogeniture). This principle was far from absolute; under pressure from younger sons, parts of an inheritance might be set apart for them in compensation (appanage;). Vassals also acquired the right to alienate their fiefs, with the proviso, first, of the lord's consent and, later, on payment of a certain tax. Similarly, they obtained the right to subinfeudate, that is, to become lords themselves by granting parts of their fiefs to vassals of their own. If a vassal died without heir or committed a felony, his fief went back to the lord.

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