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A Report on Feudalism, Its Emergence and Features

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Feudalism, also known as feudality or feudal system, was a political, economic and social system that flourished in medieval Europe during the Middle Ages between the 9th and 15th centuries. Feudalism emerged as a result of the decentralisation of empires, especially the Carolingian empire.

Feudalism was characterised by the absence of a public authority and the exercise of judicial and administrative functions by lords. The feudal system’s main feature was its pyramidal or hierarchical structure, with the king at the topmost level of the hierarchy. Below him were the nobles, also known as lords, followed by the knights. The knights were the backbone of the medieval European armies. They represented an elite caste of warriors that fought on behalf of their feudal lords. Symbols and ceremonies such as the accolade confirmed their status as knights. The accolade involved the king or lord touching his vassal on the shoulders with a sword to confer knighthood. At the lowest strata of the feudal system were the peasants and farmers, also known as serfs. Around ninety per cent of the population were serfs. The condition of the serfs was a bit better than the slaves.

Another essential feature of feudalism was vassalage, in which a person (the vassal) had a mutual obligation to an immediate superior like a lord or king. The obligations often included military services. The king assigned parcels of lands (known as fiefs) to his nobles. In return for the land, the nobles swore their loyalty to the king and promised to perform various duties like financial support, counsel, and military services. So if the kingdom were threatened or new territories were to be conquered, the nobles were obliged to provide troops and fight alongside their king. These nobles then further apportioned parts of their fiefs to knights or to more minor nobles, who in turn performed military duties and swore allegiance to the lords. The vassals received lands and protection (sometimes in the form of legal support) from their superior, if and when required.

Fiefs were the central element of feudalism. These were heritable property or rights granted by a feudal lord or king to his vassal, who held it as a fee in return for a form of allegiance and service. These fees were often revenue-generating lands or anything else of value, such as tax farms, offices, or trade rights. However, the granting of lands to a vassal did not relinquish the lord’s rights over his property. The lords still had ultimate ownership over the fiefs and could recover it in case of disloyalty or death of the vassal. Fiefs became hereditary by the middle of the 10th century, meaning that the eldest son of the deceased vassal could inherit the fief after paying homage, swearing allegiance to the nobleman and paying a relief for the land. The relief served as monetary recognition of the lord’s continuing rights over the property. A fief virtually constituted an independent kingdom inside a kingdom.

Feudalism encouraged the decentralisation of authority. The king was obliged to share power with his nobles. The nobles, in turn, shared power with nobles lower in the hierarchy. Feudalism was always an arrangement between individuals, not between nation-states and citizens. However, this led to general disorder and endemic conflict as there was no strong legal tradition to prevent the lords from declaring war on each other. The feudal system’s consequence was the creation of localised groups of communities that owed loyalty to a specific lord who exercised absolute authority in his domain. Vassals often swore allegiances to more than one lord, and as a result, their loyalty was often entangled when these lords declared war on each other. There was also no sense of loyalty to a particular race or a geographic area, only loyalty to a person that too would terminate upon that person’s death.

Another characteristic of the feudal system were the castles. Castles were fortified bases from which a feudal lord could dominate the land. The castles served as a dwelling place for the lords and as the seat of the local court of justice. Once ensconced inside, an uncooperative nobleman was extremely difficult for anyone to dislodge, even for the king.

So how and when did feudalism originate? As stated before, feudalism emerged as a result of the decentralisation of empires in medieval Europe. Feudalism contained elements of Germanic custom, mixed with the late Roman practice of gifting lands to barbarian groups in return for military service. The early origins of feudalism can be traced back to the inability of the successors of Charlemagne to protect the Carolingian dynasty. They quarrelled among themselves and divided the empire. The continued subdivision of the empire among their heirs drained the dynasty’s strength. Simultaneously, the Viking raiders’ growing threats from the north and the incursions of the Magyar from the south further undermined the Carolingians’ authority. The resulting insecurity of life and property led free men to place themselves at the mercy of powerful landlords and pledge their services to them in return for protection. This led to the institution of vassalage about which I have discussed before. There was also a decline in overseas trade, resulting in the medieval economy being increasingly dependent on revenue generated from lands. This was why the payment for services’ were paid in terms of lands rather than monetary payments.

Feudalism was essentially based on the mutual aid between a lord and his vassal, but as that system became more complex over time, this relationship weakened. As the feudal ties weakened and monarchs tried to assert direct control over their lands, the age of feudalism was coming to a close, finally ending in the 16th century.

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Government in the Middle Ages – Feudalism. (2022, December 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 29, 2023, from
“Government in the Middle Ages – Feudalism.” GradesFixer, 06 Dec. 2022,
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