Feudalism in Europe

Feudalism was a set of legal and military customs in medieval Europe that flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries. It can be broadly defined as a system for structuring society around relationships derived from the holding of land, known as a fiefdom or fief, in exchange for service or labour. This Topic about Feudalism in Europe.

Meaning and Evolution of Feudalism:-

feudalism, also called feudal system or feudality, French féodalité, historiographic construct designating the social, economic, and political conditions in western Europe during the early Middle Ages, the long stretch of time between the 5th and 12th centuries.

Protection and Service:

Feudalism was an important feature of medieval European civilization. It was a condition of society based on the principle of protection, service, and payments. Those who needed protection secured it from a nobleman, who had his own army and retainers. The nobleman in return secured services and payments from those whom he protected.

Feudalism was an organization of society through the medium of land. The word feudalism is derived from the Latin word feudum, which means a fief or piece of land held by a vassal. Feudalism was developed at a time when land was the only source of wealth and power. Industry and trade had suffered much during barbarian Invasions, and it was difficult to sell goods and have each.

Feudalism was comprehensive in its range, but it lacked regularity and-uniformity. A study of feudal society in different countries shows that conditions were not the same everywhere, though the main principles were almost the same in all countries. The want of uniformity makes some writers Speak of feudalism instead of a feudal system.

In the words of Stubbs, feudalism may be described as & complete organization of society through the medium of land tenure in which from the king down to the lowest landowner all are bound together by obligation and defense.


Feudalism was of a slow and irregular growth, It is difficult to say precisely how and when it was introduced. It took birth in critical times, when there was: anarchy, and security to life and property was at stake. No king or law-giver created it by an order or decree. The evolution of feudal society was a spontaneous process. It must have been the result of Roman, German and Celtic practices. It rose, when people were desperately in need of protection to their lives and property, and were prepared to surrender their liberty to those who could protect them from violent hands. They were ready to surrender their land besides agreeing to render service and make certain payments.

It seems the germs of feudalism could be found even before the days of Charlemagne, as the edicts of this emperor indicate the existence of a feudal society earlier. The later Roman emperors found. it difficult to protect their frontiers from barbarians. During the six centuries following the death of Emperor Justinian (527565) many circumstances contributed to the evolution of feudalism. The central government was paralyzed and law and order broke down. Barbarians from Germany made the cities of Italy and Gaul unsafe. As the king could not rule effectively and punish barbarians, many nobles left their mansions in these cities and went to their rural villas for safety. Around their villas lived farmers and soldiers, who depended upon them.

The break up of the Roman empire had endangered industry, trade and commerce. Means of communication were disrupted, and roads plagued by robbers were neglected. In the rural areas, nobles began producing goods to make themselves self-sufficient.

Feudalism mainly originated in Italy and Germany, but its characteristic development took place in France. It was taken to England by Anglo-saxon conquerors. Feudalism did not mature in Spain, northern Sweden, Norway, Greece and other countries as in France and Britain.

In a way, the germs of feudalism were found in Roman society, in which on a huge farm a large number of persons depended on a nobleman. Then again, among German tribes it was customary for many brave men to be led by a strong man.

After the death of Charlemagne and the consequent general disorder, the problem of security became very serious. For the Rake of self-defense, petty land-holders went to a powerful nobleman in the neighborhood and sought for his-protection. Protection could not be secured free. The seeker of protection had to-surrender his land to the lord and receive it back again as a tenant. A person, who had no land, agreed to serve the lord in a personal capacity, He could render menial services like waiting on the lord’s table or serving as a guard-or watchman.


The status of the nobleman was of suzerain. He was the liege lord, and the tenant was the vassal. When the central government was weak, and brutal and blood-thirsty freebooters like the Vikings worked havoc, the custom of poor and weak people commending themselves to a strong man became more and more widespread.

Need of Kings:

Kings also were in need of military support,  as singly they could not face the barbarians looting and destroying on a large scale. So they granted more lands to the nobles for securing greater support.

Need of the Church:

In several countries, Christianity was in danger in the absence of a strong central government. Like the laymen, the clergy also needed protection.

Basic Features:-

It is necessary to be familiar with the common words used in feudal society. The man, who owned feudal land, was known as lord, or liege lord or suzerain. The tenant, who held the land, was known as vassal, or liege man, or liege, or lord’s man, or man. The plot of land held by a vassal was called fief, or feud, or fee. If a person held land in fee, he was only a vassal or tenant; but if he held it in fee simple, he was regarded as owner.

All Embracing:

Feudalism was all-embracing. It applied to all persons, classes and institutions. The king, the tenants-in-chief, the subtenants, free men and serfs, laymen and clergymen, all came in the feudal picture.


The king was believed to be the vassal of God and ruled by divine right. He was the lord of all vassals. The whole state or kingdom was the king’s estate. He divided land among the nobles, who became the tenants-in-chief in the country. For having -received the land, they were under obligation to render military service and make some payments.

In feudal society the relationship between lord and man was universal, and it was said. No man without lord, no lord without man.


The tenant-in-chief sublet his lands to his vassal, who might subordinate part of his land to a smaller vassal. The relation between the vassal and the sub-vassal was the same as between the baron and his vassal.


The country was divided into feudal units called manors or estates in which the feudal lords lived almost like kings, The size of the manor was not the same everywhere. Some manors were small. Some were almost like a township. Some were of the size of an entire district of twenty or thirty villages. The manorial estate was worked by many families. It contained the lord’s castle, manorial court, mill, store-houses and workers quarters. The castle or chateau was not beautiful. It was constructed more for security  than for comfort. It was surrounded by a deep moat. At the entree of the castle, there was the donjon or lord’s house. It was dark inside, as it had few small windows.

Each village in the manor had a church with a parish priest. The church was the center of religious and social life.

Freemen, Serfs and Slaves:

The tenants were of two categories freeholders and villeins (i.e. those belonging to a villa or a manor). Nobles, clergy, people following different vocations, traders, artisans and farmers owning land or holding it on lease from a lord were freemen. Freeholders were in minority, and they were free to live on the manor or go away if they liked. Serfs were not slaves, though they were bound to the land. Their bodies could not be possessed, and they could not be killed or mutilated. Slaves were like chattels, they could be bought and sold. There were several types of serfs. The church was against slavery, but it employed non-Christian slaves, who were captured from Muslim countries. Italy dealt with slaves, as she was influenced by Muslim countries. Gradually in Europe the number of slaves diminished, as the number of serfs increased.

A serf cultivated a piece of land owned by a lord or baron. He paid annual rent in terms of goods, labor or money. He paid three taxes in money, & a head tax to the government through the baron rent, and an arbitrary charge imposed by the lord. He gave the lord one-tenth of his crops and livestock. On many manors three days of free labour had to be given. He had to repair ploughs, Plant hedges, big ditches, shear sheep, and do other miscellaneous jobs. Many restrictions were put on his liberty. He could not sell his house or cattle, or give his daughter in marriage without the consent of his lord.

Link of Land:

Feudal society had different ranks. The king enjoyed the highest status. Then came the lords, who were of noble birth. Next in rank came the vassals. The serfs and slaves were of the lowest rank in society, and they were badly exploited. In feudal hierarchy, everyone was linked with land, whether he was a king or a serf.

Rights and Duties:-

The feudal contract: laid down duties and rights. The lord was to protect his vassals and give justice. He was known in English as Lord, in Latin Dominoes, in French Seigneur and in German Herr. His main functions were to give military protection to his lands and the people on it, to develop agriculture, industry and trade, and to serve the king in war. A person, who wished to be his vassal knelt bareheaded and without any weapon before him, placed his hands’ in the palms of the lord, and declared himself to be the lord’s man. He placed his hand on the Bible or sacred relics and pledged permanent fealty to the lord. The lord then raised him, granted him the fief and in token gave him the fief, a straw, a stick, a clod of earth, or a written deed. This ceremony was known as Investiture. The piece of land given to the vassal was known as fief. The vassal was called liege or liege man. The primary principle of feudalism was loyalty. The vassal had to do certain services including military service. In times of peace he had to cultivate the land. He had to make certain special money payments called aids, when the lord’s eldest son was to be knighted, when the lord’s eldest daughter was to be married, and when the lord was to be ransomed.

The lord gave land to the serf for life. He allowed him, to use his ovens, mills, waters, woods and fields. He took care of him in sickness and old age. He built and maintained roads, bridges and canals, He organized agriculture, industry and trade. In some cases, feudal lord owned more than one manor. Such a lord appointed a Senescence to exercise supervision over all his manors. The lord was supposed to protect the manor from robbers and invaders. He had to maintain peace and order and settle disputes.

In a manor the lord maintained two types of courts. One was for the noble vassals and the other for the tenants. Law was mostly customary.

When the armies were needed, the king asked the tenants in chief to supply the troops. They in turn demanded military service from their vassals.


In feudal society there arose a class of profession al soldiers called knights, who distinguished themselves in tournaments and in acts of chivalry. The main duty of a knight was to do military service. He had to equip himself with his own horse and weapons, and serve for at least forty days each year. Generally a knight was attended by an esquire, who had an extra horse and weapons. In case the knight was wounded, the esquire had to help him. Knights were supposed to be men of honor, who were ready to uphold justice and firplay. The knights formed the finest armies of Europe. The status of a lord was indicated by the number of knights he could command for military service.


The church also came under feudal organization. In some cases the manorial lord was an archbishop, bishop or an abbot. He received land from the king, and like the other tenants-in-chief pledged his loyalty to the king. The king conferred on the clergy titles like duke and count. The bishop presided over the church courts, minted coins and enjoyed other rights. In Germany and France, bishops and abbots armed themselves like nobles.

High Status of Lords:

The tenants-in-chief had a high status in feudal society. They did not do manual labour and soil their fingers. They regarded themselves as lords, men of noble birth, whose main duty was to rule over the manor and fight. The nobles were of different grades dukes, marquises, counts (or earls in England) and barons.


The very fact that feudalism was evolved to meet the needs of society showed that it had several advantages.

Saved Civilization:

It saved civilization from the hands of barbarians. It provided for defense at a time when the king was unable to protect the people. It was a kind of mutual insurance providing for protection in times of danger. The ordinary people secured military protection from the strong. The needs of the militarily strong persons in society were met by the services rendered and payments made by the free-men and the serf.

Social Harmony:

It created social harmony on the basis of fealty. Every person in feudal society knew his rank according to which he had to render certain services, make payments and enjoy certain rights. Society was bound by mutual obligations; loyalty and service lord depended on his vassal, who in turn depended on the lord. Thus there was mutual support and co-operation. Feudal society was like a mutual insurance society.

Solved Economic Problems:

It solved the economic problems of society by providing for agricultural production and the making of various kinds of commodities. The manor was the economic unit in which grain, vegetables and fruits were grown, and various types of commodities needed by society were produced. One of the duties of the lord of the manor was to encourage the Production of goods.

Made provision for Government :

Feudalism provided for good government relatively speaking at a time when kings were unable to rule. The manor was a political unit also. The lord of the manor governed more or Jess in the same way in which a king ruled country.

Protected Christianity:

Christianity which was s exposed to the attacks of barbarians was saved. Like others, the clergy were also feudalised.


Feudalism had several drawbacks.

Weak kings:

The king became weak, as the nobles had large armies, which they used for challenging the king’s authority. The king could not impose his will on the barons and compel them to do their duties as required by the feudal contract. It was entirely dependent on the barons for men and money. In some countries, the central government in the hands of the king could not maintain peace and order. The barons forgetting their obligations did whatever they liked and promoted anarchy. In feudal England, under King Stephen, who was a mere figure-head, the people suffered so much from anarchy that the nineteen years of his rule were Described as nineteen long winters? (1135-1154). A manor was a self-sufficient unit with the castle, church; mint, fields and work- shops. The baron could manage without the king’s support, and behave as if he were an independent ruler.


Feudalism was unfavorable to peace. The feudal contract expected the barons to help the king to maintain peace. They had to Help him with their armies whenever the king ordered. But in several countries the barons used the armies to fight among themselves or to rise in revolt against the king. War was the normal law of the feudal world. As a feudal Lord had an army at his disposal, more often than not, he wished to measure its strength by fighting against the king or other feudal lords. Thus feudal lords sowed seeds of civil wars.

Stagnant Society:

Feudalism made society stagnant in stead of progressive and dynamic, The estate of manor was a self sufficient unit in which the political, social, economies and religious needs of the people were met. It was a small world in itself in which the people took birth and died without knowing much about the outside world. The ordinary people were left uninfluenced by what was happening outside the manor. They had no opportunities of knowing anything about the progress taking place outside the manor.

Sufferings of People:

The common people and the serfs suffered at the hands of the selfish and exploiting barons in peace and in war. They were powerless and were thrown to the tender mercies of the lords. The lords did not care to protect the people or to promote their welfare. They harassed the king, if he happened to be weak, and the king was incapable of protecting the people.

The condition of the serfs was pitiable.

They had to suffer silently. They were expected to give free labor and money payments totally on of proportion to the advantages they had in the manor. They had no incentive to produce more, as hens, eggs, honey, corn and several other things had to be given free to the lord. They had very little rest, and were bodily fatigued or worn out to take much interest in life.

Poor Progress:

In all fields of activity progress in feudal society was poor. Politically there could be little progress in which new ideas had no scope for their free play. Economically feudalism was rigid and un-progressive. The nobles were not interested in the rapid development of agriculture and industry. They did not take any trouble or risk to introduce better methods of production. Their immediate objective was to secure as much wealth as possible. They spent much of their time in-war and had hardly any time left to plan for the progress of society. They were not prepared to introduce any changes, which would cut down, their rights and privileges.

Hampered National Unification:

Feudalism hampered national unification. People were conscious of smaller loyalties, like loyalty to the lord, and were incapable of developing higher loyalties, The concept of nation and loyalty to it was alien to feudal society. In the feudal manor, people were loyal to the lord rather than to the king. The lord was the superior on the spot, and his word carried greater weight than that of the king. Loyalty to the lord came in the way of developing loyalty to the king and the country. People were accustomed to think in terms of the inhabit ants of the manor, and the concept of nation could not be cultivated.

Decline and Disappearance:

Feudalism declined in the 13th and 14th centuries, With the outbreak of the Renaissance and other movements, it disappeared in the fifteenth century in several countries. It lingered in a few countries even after that, as the people in them had not been conscious of their rights or were unable to rebel against feudal practices.

We may summaries here the important causes leading to the decline and disappearance of feudalism.


The Crusades or the Holy Wars between the Christians and the Muslims weakened the nobles. Many nobles from various Christian countries had gone to the East to take part in the Crusades. They lost heavily in the Crusades in terms of men and money. Many died, and those who returned had lost much of their wealth. The nobles impoverished by the Crusades began selling their feudal rights.

Rise of Towns:

The rise of towns was a blow to feudalism. Many towns were able to have their freedom from baronial control, by paying a large sum of money and securing charters of rights.

Towns also enabled serfs to have their freedom. According to custom, a serf could not run away from the manor. If he left the manor and was detected, he would be brought back to the manor. But if he ran away to a nearby town, and evaded detection for one year and one day after his escape, he would earn his freedom. Many serfs escaped to the towns, and evaded detection for a period longer than the stipulated period.

Rise of the Middle Class:

The rise of the middle class also weakened the feudal structure. Middle class people were against the mischievous and exploiting feudal barons, and they were ready to help the king in crushing the power of the nobles.

Rise of Strong Monarchy:

The rise of powerful monarchs in several countries went far in bringing about the decline of feudalism. Strong kings like Henry VII in England seriously planned to put down the nobles. They had the moral and material support of the middle class. When gun-powder was discovered, kings made it their monopoly. In England, Henry VII used gun-powder to batter the walls of the baronial castles, in in which the nobles had entrenched themselves.

New Ideas:

The impact of the new ideas was against feudalism. As feudalism had outlived its purpose, it had to go. In the dark age, people were in need of protection from nobles against barbarians. Such protection was no more needed. People who were increasingly becoming conscious of their rights, were no more prepared to tolerate the tyranny of the feudal barons.

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