Feudalism, A general Overview
Author: Stubbs, William
Feudalism: Its Frankish Birth And English Development
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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