The Rise of Feudalism: 850-1000 AD
We are accustomed to a capitalist economy, good communication and
transportation, and to solving our problems at the state or national level, so we
tend to think that decentralized authority is primitive and ineffective. This is not
necessarily so, and feudalism is not completely foreign to American society. Let me
try to discuss feudalism from three different aspects. The paragraphs in
provide the sort of discussion that you are likely to find in the average college
those in regular print will provide some idea of the historical conditions
under which the feudal organization of society arose; and those in
red will discuss
the growth of an example of American feudalism with which most of you are
familiar, if only through films and TV.
Before we begin, we should note that the men and women of the middle ages never
talked about feudalism.
is a term invented in the sixteenth century by
royal lawyers - primarily in England - to describe the decentralized and complex
social, political, and economic society out of which the modern state was
emerging. The term "feudalism" came from the German
, or "cow," the
measure of wealth among the early Germans, a term that gave rise to the medieval
. "Fief" simply meant "something of value." In the agricultural world of
the time, "something of value" was usually land. But the sixteenth-century lawyers
pictured this land as having been under the control of a powerful king who
distributed much of it to his followers, men of distinction whose breeding and
upbringing particularly fitted them for governing and giving battle.
It has been argued that historians have interpreted medieval documents and
histories in terms of this view, and that, when we examine the documents more
closely, there is actually very little evidence that society was really organized in
such a fashion. This may very well be true, but a new and different picture of
medieval society in the ninth through the fourteenth centuries has yet to be
developed. Lacking anything possible better, it is only reasonable that we should
turn our attention to the traditional portrayal of feudal society.
THE CHARACTERISTICS OF FEUDALISM
ineffective central government
Let us first consider the characteristics of feudalism.
Feudalism is a decentralized organization that arises when central authority
cannot perform its functions and when it cannot prevent the rise of local
In the isolation and chaos of the 9th and 10th centuries, European leaders no
longer attempted to restore Roman institutions, but adopted whatever would work.
The result was that Europe developed a relatively new and effective set of
institutions, adapted to a moneyless economy, inadequate transportation and
communication facilities, an ineffective central government, and a constant threat
of armed attack by raiders such as the Vikings, Magyars, and Saracens. The most
well-known of the institutions were manorialism (the organization of the peasants),
monasticism (the organization of the churchmen), and feudalism (the institution of