Feudalism

Although at varying periods its incidence was international, it was most notably present in Western Europe in medieval times, arising amid decaying central authority, civil war, invasion, and economic stagnation. Feudalism was a way of governing by the strong (lords) over the weak (vassals), from the nobility through the peasantry; property (fiefs) determined rank. Churchmen were excluded from but dependent on this stratification, and its development varied within Europe and chronologically: England, for example, did not experience it until the Normans introduced it in 1066. Whatever the degree of feudalization, there never was anarchy, and government was always local; personalness and proximity were paramount, and interdependency reigned. To be both lord and vassal was common, and there was even hope for the serf's progress. At first the vassal was the lord's fighting man, but as property was passed down, more distributed, duties and standing changed. Civilization began to replace war, and the erstwhile military class were becoming country gentlemen. Feudal institutions lasted to the Ancien RĂ©gime, and some elements still survive; but feudalism ceased to be important by 1300 when the bourgeoisie were acquiring fiefs alongside the nobility. Manors and serfdom were bound to shift, but the ideal engendered by them-chivalry-bore a timeless universal truth. A deep sense of law emerged, and the later courts of justice and the parliamentary system were but natural feudal outgrowths. Feudalism was founded on, and developed and bequeathed a commitment to aristocracy, believing that to be a law of nature.

C. Stephenson, Medieval Feudalism (1942); F.L. Ganshof, Feudalism (tr. P. Grierson, 1952); M. Bloch, Feudal Society (tr. L.A. Manyon, 1961); F. Stenton, The First Century of English Feudalism, 1066-1166 (1961).