Political Theories for Students. Editor: Matthew Miskelly & Jaime Noce. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.


Few political systems have shown the adaptiveness and longevity of feudalism. This system, based on personal relationships, local administration, and defined hierarchies, touched several continents for more than 1,500 years. In some places it filled the void left by other political organizations; in others, it represented the next stage in the evolution of government. In both cases, feudalism grew out of practice and precedents. Theory followed experience. In all cases, a parallel code of values and aesthetics—chivalry in the West, bushido in the East—complemented and reinforced the system. Feudalism relied on personal and/or family honor as well as self-interest to work. Its informal and varied methods required a balance between superiors and dependents, rights and responsibilities. Though not in practice today, feudalism and the legends it inspired continue to fascinate many people.


Modern individuals often equate feudalism with the image of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Medieval Arthurian legends sprang from the feudal tradition and its code of chivalry, and as fruits of the system, do reflect on the values of feudalism itself. But the contemporary, Hollywood-inspired image of a strong king uniting a close-knit Camelot is not an accurate picture of feudalism. In fact, feudalism grew because empires fell and kings were not strong. Local, decentralized, informal decision-making among individuals in the absence of powerful authorities led to the evolution of feudalism.

A Chaotic Time

The feudal system emerged out of a time of chaos in Europe. The rise of Augustus as the first Roman emperor had marked the beginning of the Roman Empire in 27 B.C. For 500 years, the empire provided stability and peace across a vast territory spanning three continents. Carefully constructed public works such as roads, bridges, and aqueducts united the lands physically, while personal allegiance and sometimes worship of the emperor united the people psychologically. Roman law became a universal standard, applicable even to commerce with non-Romans, and professional law schools ensured its uniformity and longevity. The death of Roman Emperor Theodosius I in 395 A.D. and the fall of Rome to the Visigoths in 410, however, spelled the beginning of the end for what had once been a unified West; the great Roman Empire and the peace it provided was no more. By 771, Charlemagne became ruler of a less vast but nonetheless impressive empire that stretched through France, Germany, and Italy, with the blessing and support of the Pope, but bitter civil wars after his death plunged Europe into disorder once again. Though the Church, based in Rome and led by the Pope, tried to fill the void left by the empire and provide central authority, protection, and law to the different peoples, it often faced internal strife and external obstacles. Invasions from the north, south, and east posed further threats to stability. This period is sometimes known as the Dark Ages, or, more properly, the Early Middle Ages.

Developing Order

As a response to the void of centralized authority, local areas began to develop or renew customs to help people live together in some kind of order. These customs included rules about duties and obligations: who owed what to whom, and when they owed it. Many of these customs were not new. For example, the Germanic peoples had developed a system known as the comitatus, or war band, by the time of the Roman Empire. In this group, the war chief owed his followers food for sustenance and spoils from the battles the group fought together. In return, the leader’s companions owed him their loyalty and fighting prowess without question. The comitatus system had never really disappeared, but it grew in practice in the Early Middle Ages as authority dissolved elsewhere. These customs had several key features: they were localized, not centralized; they were based on personal relationships; and they outlined hierarchies of people, from superiors to subordinates. These features represented the first forms of feudalism in practice.

Another example of an arrangement of this kind was practiced during the Merovingian era. The Merovingian dynasty began with Clovis I, a tribal chieftain who by 507 had built a Frankish, or French, empire stretching to Germany. Clovis united the Gallic clergy and institutionalized Christianity in his dynasty and lands. Though Clovis was a powerful ruler for his time, the authority he and his successors wielded was extremely limited. Most decisions about property and justice were decided locally by informal means. One such means, the proto-feudal legal custom of the precaria, developed under Merovingian rule. The precaria was an agreement under which one individual would give another the right to live and work on a piece of land for a limited amount of time, after which the land reverted back to the original owner. Clergy and lay people used the precaria for a variety of reasons, from escaping tax liabilities to rebuilding a home economy after a crop failure. This kind of temporary commendation, or vassalage, was a contract, and as such came with its own set of duties and obligations.

By 751 Charlemagne’s father, Pepin the Short, had replaced the Merovingians and founded the Carolingian dynasty of kings with the Pope’s blessing. The Carolingians also relied on decentralized means of maintaining order and therefore fostered the evolution of the feudal system. During the Carolingian period, the precaria developed into the benefit. Just as men had duties and obligations to their lords—providing protection, arms, etc.—the lords also had duties and obligations to their men. Those in superior conditions had to provide for the sustenance and maintenance of their pledged dependents, or vassals. Some lords took in their dependent men as members of their households; others granted them land to work so they could support themselves. These positions or lands or offerings became known as benefits, the tangible evidence of the lord’s faithfulness and his recognition of his man’s loyalty. Under the Carolingians, a variation on this theme also evolved. A king might give the lord who supported him land from royal holdings, but the king might also ask other vassals—for instance, the Church—to grant his man some of their property. This became known as theprecaria verbo regis, or grant at the king’s command. A vassal who received this precaria would owe service not to the most recent landholder, such as the Church, but to the king who arranged for the benefit. The complexity and characteristics of local duties and responsibilities—feudalism itself—took shape in the last years of the Carolingian era.

If local customs of duties and obligations anticipated the content of what would become feudalism, then certain events before the chaos of the Early Middle Ages anticipated the ceremony of what would become feudalism. One example is that of Tassilo’s commendation. Pepin the Short was uncle to Tassilo, a young boy and Duke of Bavaria. Though the Bavarian people did not wish to be under Carolingian rule, and Tassilo’s father had led an unsuccessful revolt against Pepin earlier, Pepin defended Tassilo’s duchy of Bavaria from usurpers and protected the young nobleman. In return, he demanded that Tassilo formally commend himself to Pepin in a public and permanent manner. In 757, Tassilo took his nobles to the general assembly meeting in Compiègne, and swore his loyalty to Pepin and Pepin’s successors. The ceremony was a complex one. Tassilo took Pepin’s hands in his and promised lifelong devotion. He touched religious relics—reportedly the bodies of Saints Denis, Germanus, and Martin, among others—as he promised his dedication to Pepin. Even the members of the Bavarian aristocracy who came with Tassilo had to swear loyalty oaths to Pepin and his sons. In this way, Tassilo showed he was subordinate and faithful to Pepin, and Tassilo’s Bavarian nobles, by following his example, proved their dependence not only on their lord, Tassilo, but also on his lord, Pepin. Thirty years later, Pepin reenacted this commendation, this time pledging his loyalty to Charlemagne. This early ceremony of commendation served as the prototype for later ceremonies of vassalage, in which a man willingly recognized his subordinate status and pledged his loyalty to his lord, in return for the protection and stability the lord provided.

The Role of the Church

Beyond the local customs of duties and obligations and the public ceremonies of commendation, the blending of secular and religious authority offered another foundation for what would become feudalism. The separation of church and state didn’t exist in the Early Middle Ages. Christianity, once a persecuted Jewish sect in the Roman Empire, gained converts and momentum and finally became the dominant faith of the West. Constantine, ruler of Rome from 306 to 337 A.D., did a lot to encourage the growth of Christianity, including convening ecumenical councils for religious leaders to discuss theological issues and dedicating his capital city of Constantinople to the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. When Charlemagne was crowned in 800, the Pope placed the crown on the new emperor’s head, symbolizing the cooperation and interrelationship between the two leaders. Of course, the fact that the secular and religious worlds seemed to blur together also led to a power struggle between the two groups, as each leader claimed that he had the superior authority. In many instances, however, the lines dividing the two all but disappeared.

For example, as feudalism developed, lords gave tracts of lands to vassals, who in turn pledged loyalty and accepted duties to the lord. One of these vassals was the Church; as the Church accepted land from kings and lords, the Church also accepted the obligations of faithfulness and defense that came with them. The Church, then, could enter into what became feudal contracts. A given church official therefore could be the servant of the Pope at the same time he also was the vassal of a king. The Church did have one special benefit due to its unique status as an institution rather than an individual. When vassals died, their lands returned to their lords. The Church, however, did not die—only representatives of the Church did. So the Church gained from this feudal loophole and continued to accumulate land throughout the Middle Ages, and with it, power.

The Church also influenced the character of feudalism as it developed. While local, secular leaders made decisions regarding the kind of lands given and military service expected and other duties and responsibilities attached to feudal relationships, and these decentralized decisions over time set precedents and became customary, the Church took the opportunity over the years to explain what values the feudal individual—be it lord, vassal, or lady—should embrace. The Church helped to develop an informal code known as chivalry centered around the ideal virtues of love, beauty, courage, and truth. This code implied that might should be used for right; thus knights were exhorted to protect the virtue of damsels in distress, and capture and ransom foes, if possible, rather than kill them. Doing one’s Christian duty also meant doing one’s feudal duty. In a sense, the Church painted God as the greatest lord of all, with every person on earth as vassals owing Him honor and service and loyalty. Not only did the chivalric code enforce the tenets of feudalism, but it also gave the Church even greater unifying authority in an age of otherwise decentralized, local power.

For example, the Church played upon the feudal ideas of duties and responsibilities and the chivalric notions of justice and honor to call knights and soldiers from various countries together to try to liberate the Kingdom of Jerusalem, one of the key places in Christianity’s Holy Land, from Moslem rule and place it under Christian ownership. The repeated attempts at the military takeover of Jerusalem were known as the Crusades, which began in 1095, continued to 1291, and were ultimately unsuccessful. The Crusades nonetheless highlighted the blurry line between secular and religious worlds: kings, emperors, and lords joined together beneath the cross to push for Christian control of a holy city, while popes and church leaders rallied knights and soldiers and planned military strategies. The rhetoric and practice of faith and law, church and state, were inextricably linked as feudalism developed.

Feudal Europe

The high point for feudalism in the West was the High Middle Ages (approximately 1050-1300). The rise of Otto the Great in Germany in 936, the foundation of the Kievan state in Russia in approximately 950, and the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 all served to cement feudal practices from England to Russia. But although the German tribes, the Merovingian and Carolingian kings, and the Church influenced its development, feudalism remained at heart a decentralized, local, informal system. It grew from decisions and customs that endured through time and became precedents for accepted behavior between different pairs of superiors and dependents in social, economic, and religious hierarchies. Political theory, therefore, did not dictate political practice; on the contrary, it took centuries for scholars to try in writing to articulate the assumptions behind feudal practice. Between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, authors such as Marie de France, John of Salisbury, Thomas Aquinas, Giles of Rome, Marsiglio of Padua, and Christine de Pizan were exploring feudal ideas of reciprocal obligation and contract theory and ensuring their importance in the Western tradition long after the Middle Ages had ended. None used the term “feudalism,” however; the term is a modern one devised to describe the system.

The balance between vassals and lords, who were in turn vassals to other lords, and the complex system of obligations owed in both directions could not hold past the High Middle Ages. The centralized state threatened the loose organization of localities; proto-nations could pay salaried officers and hire mercenary armies. The relationship between subject and sovereign replaced that of vassal and lord. Towns, with their growing economies and emerging middle class, grew into nearly self-sustaining worlds providing for their own protection and needs with little use for knights. For some time, a phenomenon known as “bastard feudalism” appeared, in which the aristocracy wielded its manpower—military might owed to the lords by feudal contract—to gain power and impose its will. These efforts in effect used feudal means toward non-feudal ends, and spelled the last breath for feudalism in the West. The rise of the nation-states meant the end of the Middle Ages.

Feudalism Outside Europe The phenomenon of feudalism was not limited to Europe. Pre-Columbian Mexico developed a variation of feudalism. The East had its own versions of feudalism in India, China, and, most notably, Japan. Japan’s system was based heavily on aspects of Zen Buddhism and Confucianism. Like Western feudalism, the Japanese system included reciprocal duties and responsibilities between lords and vassals. European feudalism borrowed from its religious tradition to create the chivalric code; Japanese feudalism did the same to create bushido, the way of the warrior. Like chivalry, bushido emphasized honor, loyalty to one’s lord, self-sacrifice, courage, and indifference to pain. The two versions of feudalism were nearly contemporaries: the code of bushido developed during the Kamakura period in Japan (1185-1333), which roughly correlates to the High Middle Ages. Like its western counterpart, Japanese feudalism evolved in practice long before theorists committed it to the page; the code was not written down until the sixteenth century, or even termed bushido until the seventeenth century. Unlike feudalism in the West, however, Japanese feudalism survived into the modern era. The daimyo andsamurai warriors of the Tokugawa shoguns followed the code, and state schools taught it as a prerequisite for public service. Bushido even served as the basis for emperor worship in Japan until 1945.

Today the samurai and knights of the feudal system remain potent images in our mythology, but the impact of feudalism extends beyond the codes of chivalry and bushido. In constitutions and laws and contracts, and the ideas of obligation, mutual duties, and responsibilities that they contain, the legacy of feudalism has spread and survived throughout the world.

Theory in Depth

Feudalism seemed to be either evolving or devolving over a period of centuries. It is nearly impossible to pinpoint when full feudalism arrived as a discrete, self-contained phenomenon. The essence of feudalism can be extracted from its historical examples, however, to reveal the theory behind the system.

Gender Roles

Feudalism was largely a male-dominated system. As lords and vassals, property holders at some level of the feudal pyramid, the relationship between superior and dependent almost always included only male parties. Women did not own land; instead, they were considered property by most legal systems. Only a few women monarchs such as Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) were exceptions to the rule. The military nature of the feudal order with its emphasis on personal combat and training further excluded women from the feudal system’s hierarchy. For the most part, feudal decisions were male decisions.

That is not to say that women were not involved in the feudal order. From agricultural workers among the serfs to heroines of song and story, women’s lives, like men, were woven inextricably into the feudal fabric. Although they did not hold specific official decision-making positions within the feudal hierarchy, women were indispensable in the related code of chivalry that supported and complemented feudalism. For example, the chaste and pious dictates of courtly love celebrated exemplars of feminine virtue by using them as the inspiration for quests, jousts, and good knightly deeds, as well as the focus for the protection of innocents. The Arthurian legends, which explored and refined chivalric themes, recognized women as powerful figures capable of extraordinary—and sometimes superhuman—acts of faith, magic, and even statecraft. Perhaps most importantly, the chivalric code opened opportunities for real women, as opposed to ideal or fictional ones, to gain fame as poets, artists, songwriters, and authors. The rebirth of arts associated with the age of chivalry allowed some gifted and visible women new opportunities for artistic recognition and self-expression.

Nevertheless, feudalism itself wore a distinctly male face. At its most basic, feudalism was local, personal, and hierarchical. All three of these characteristics sprang from the fact that the feudal system relied on the land as its basic building block. In feudal society, the monarch owned the land, but divided it among his nobles, who in turn divided it among their supporters, who in turn divided it among their workers. This is known as a manorial system.

The Manorial System

The feudal contract

In the manorial system, the land granted by a superior to his dependent was known as a fief. The dependent, or vassal, pledged his loyalty to his superior, also known as lord or suzerain, in a ceremony of homage. In this ceremony, like the earlier commendation, the vassal put his hands in his lord’s hands and pledged his loyalty via an oath of fealty. In turn, the lord kissed the vassal and accepted his pledge. This practice served to make public the personal relationship between the lord and his vassal and sealed the feudal contract between the two. By pledging his loyalty, the vassal promised to fight for and defend his lord and lands, and also offer the lord part of his earnings from the land through gifts, percentages of crops, etc. The contract also bound the lord to give the vassal a fief for his sustenance, the individuals attached to the fief, and the promise of order (in this decentralized system, the lord served as the main instrument of justice, and thus heard disputes and decided sentences).

This feudal contract had several important characteristics. First, it was reciprocal. It bound both parties so each had duties and responsibilities toward the other. If one side did not follow through, the mutually beneficial relationship fell apart. Second, it was informal. The contract relied on self-interest—since each party had good reason to live up to the agreement—and an understood code of honor for enforcement. The values of chivalry, then, played a part in socializing lords and vassals to become good contract-keepers. Third, and perhaps most important, the contract was not exclusive: in fact, feudal contracts were stacked upon each other to create the feudal pyramid. In other words, the fact that one individual was lord to a vassal did not keep that same individual from being vassal to a greater lord at the same time, and so on.

The feudal pyramid

This pyramid ended at its top with the king. Beneath him were his tenants-in-chief, counts and barons who had received their fiefs from the sovereign. Below the counts and barons were mesne-tenants, or vassals who received their fiefs from the counts and barons. Several levels of mesne-tenants might exist, each swearing oaths of fealty to the lords who gave them their fiefs. At the bottom of the pyramid were the villains, or serfs. The serfs remained attached by heredity to the land either by custom or law; they performed agricultural labor on the land where their ancestors had worked, in the sections the serfs claimed as their own with the lord’s permission, and the demesne, or the land the lord set aside for his own use. On the demesne, they owed their lords work in two forms: week-work, a specified number of days per year, and boon days, or periods of extra effort such as harvest time. Free serfs could move to another fief of their own accord if they chose, but servile serfs had to receive permission if they wished to leave the fief; most serfs remained on the same land for generations.

The heart of the feudal system rested not at the top of the pyramid, with the king, but at the pyramid’s base, on the land. Most people during the feudal era were peasants, either free or servile serfs. Their world, and the world of their immediate lords, revolved around the fief. The fief in its smallest form consisted of a manor. The lord retained the manor house and its surrounding demesne for the use of himself and his family. The rest of the fief land was divided. Serfs held the arable, land divided in a system decided by each individual lord (usually in small strips given to individual peasants on which to live and work). Serfs usually held the meadow in common. The lord traditionally retained ownership of the woodland, but allowed serfs to hunt, fish, and cut wood on the land as long as they compensated the lord when they used this privilege. In this manner, peasant and aristocrat, vassal and lord, coexisted on the land.

The legal system

The manor served as the political and economic unit of the feudal system. Politically, the manor offered justice, protection, and administration. Each fief developed a set of manorial courts where disputes about property or crimes could be heard. The local lord or his agent presided over the justice system. The decisions made over time became precedents and served as a form of common law. In this way, the law evolved locally, tailored to address the specific concerns of the peasants, servants, and free people of a given fief. Each manorial court and its decisions might be somewhat different, but within each court, practices evolved and became standardized. Even if a king or overlord transferred a particular manor to another lord’s control, the infrastructure of that manor, with its courts and conventions, remained intact. The king also maintained courts, but these heard only a small fraction of the cases in the land. The legal system of the Middle Ages, like feudalism itself, was largely decentralized and personal.

Terms of the feudal contract

This system also provided for the rights of those on the land. Lords and vassals, by virtue of the feudal contract, had specific claims against each other: the lord had to provide sustenance and the vassal loyalty and protection. Serfs, too, had such claims. Even the servile serfs were not in fact slaves. Through the implied contract between manor lord and serf, recognized by the manorial court system, the lord expected goods from his workers— labor, loyalty, dues, payment for use of the lord’s woodlands, etc.—but the lord also owed the serfs safety, sustenance, and basic human rights. In a sense, the manor system acted like a primitive insurance policy. In the good, productive times, serfs owed the lord of the manor fees, payments, and part of the fruits of their labors. If crop failure or illness plagued the manor’s lands, however, the lord was expected to liquidate assets to provide for those who served him. A lord faced shame and public censure if he turned away from the chivalric code and behaved inappropriately; moreover, if he lost his work force, he also faced financial ruin. Content and motivated serfs brought honor and material success to the lord.

The manor therefore served as the economic unit of the feudal system, as well. The economy of the Middle Ages revolved primarily around agriculture, and the manor oversaw and organized the farming of the land. Internal improvements—the building and repair of roads, bridges, dams, and other pathways for people and information—also took place at the manor level. Taxes and surveys, when taken, were funneled through the manor, as well. Many manor economies also included modest forms of small manufacturing such as the production of cloth, ironwear, and other staples needed for daily life. Self-sufficiency was a goal of the system, for at any time war or disease could cut the manor off from its neighbors and leave its tenants to provide for themselves.

The Church

Intertwined with the manorial system was the Church. Its members were vassals to various lords, and therefore owed loyalty not only to the officials of the Church and the pope in Rome, but also to other lay leaders, as well. At the local level, the Church reinforced the feudal system by offering it instruction—including support of the code of chivalry—and charity, itself another form of insurance for the most humble of society. Through the Crusades and other events, the Church also remained involved with the final unit of the feudal system: the military.

Among the responsibilities of vassals to lords was the duty of defense. If a lord required military help, the vassal was sworn to respond. For the great lords who served even greater overlords and/or the king, the duty of defense meant more than appearing at a battle with a sword. These vassals owed their superiors forces, numbers of men, trained and fit and able to win a war. Kings, for example, asked tenants-in-chief for military support, and they in turn raised armies by calling on their pledged mesne-tenants. The result was private armies and career knights.


Perhaps no single figure represents the Middle Ages to the modern mind more than the knight. Some were landholders, and others accepted fiefs in other forms, such as money or similar gifts. All required their own support staffs for training and help. Boys who expected to become knights, often sons of knights themselves, began their military apprenticeship as young children sent to the courts of lords or kings. There the pages, or young students, learned about weaponry, hunting, falconry, dogs, and the code of chivalry. By puberty, knights in training became squires. Each served a knight and learned firsthand about warfare and courtly society. By 21, squires with sufficient skill, reputation, and wealth could become knights.

For these men, trained for more than a decade before even reaching knighthood, war was a lifetime occupation. As various knights—and beneath them, common soldiers—were loyal to specific lords, a balance of power often emerged among the highest level of counts and barons. When this balance failed, internal fighting broke out until the medieval arms race returned to equilibrium. The high number of knights and military men who relied on the patronage of lords and/or kings led to war by necessity: if the forces existed, then they would find someone to fight. The military manpower was too expensive and time-consuming to maintain simply to leave it inactive. Thus war, external and civil, as well as invasions and boundary disputes typified the feudal age.

All of the ingredients of the feudal system served to make society local, personal, and hierarchical. The manor, the smallest unit of feudal society, served key political and economic roles by providing justice, protection, administration, and a primitive form of insurance. The church and the military, bound to the feudal system as well, had their own forms of hierarchy between superiors and dependents. All of the relationships that built the feudal pyramid from its base to its point relied on two key ingredients to hold the contract together: self-interest, backed by the knowledge that both sides had to meet their obligations for each side to benefit; and honor, fueled by the values of the code of chivalry. These motivations did not always ensure that all interactions were ideal, but they did form the enduring backbone of feudalism for centuries.

Literature of the Feudal Era

Since feudalism was an evolved system, developed over centuries through local, decentralized, informal precedents, rather than an implemented system, in which leaders devised a plan and then set in place, major writings on feudalism did not appear before or even during the development of the system; instead, they appeared after feudalism was in widespread practice. Perhaps the most important writings were not the examinations of the feudal system and the celebrations of the code of chivalry, but the modest contracts between lords and vassals, the granting of benefits and similar transactions. One of the most lasting impacts of the feudal era is the concept of the contract.

Otherwise, feudalism did not have theorists as much as it had commentators, or thinkers who observed the system after its development and remarked upon it, practitioners, or those who used its rhetoric to further their own goals, and artists, or those who expressed the values and conflicts of feudalism through fiction, song, and other media. Perhaps one of the best writings to exemplify feudalism in practice is Bernard of Clairvaux’s “Letter to Pope Eugenius III.” Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), or Saint Bernard, was a French mystic, orator, and leader of the Cistercian order of monks. He also was a political figure who made many journeys for peacekeeping, charity, and reform. In approximately 1146, Bernard wrote to his friend Pope Eugenius III to encourage the Pope’s faith and action in the Second Crusade and its goal to take Jerusalem under Christian control. In the letter, the feudal interrelationship of the Church and state is clear: Bernard wants the Pope to launch a military campaign and gather lay leaders behind its banner. The influence of chivalric thought is also evident—Bernard praises courage, criticizes cowardice, and underscores the values of faithfulness and spirituality:

The news is not good, but is sad and grave. And sad for whom? Rather, for whom is it not sad! Only for the sons of wrath, who do not feel anger, nor are they saddened by sad events, but rejoice and exult in them…. I tell you, such a general and serious crisis is not an occasion to act tepidly nor timidly. I have read [in the book of] a certain wise man: ‘He is not brave whose spirit does not rise in difficulty.’ And I would add that a faithful person is even more faithful in disaster. The waters have risen to the soul of Christ, and touch the very pupil of his eye. Now, in this new suffering of our Lord Christ, we must draw the swords of the first Passion…. An extraordinary danger demands an extraordinary effort. The foundation is shaken, and imminent ruin follows unless resisted. I have written boldly, but truthfully for your sake…. But you know all of this, it is not for me to lead you to wisdom. I ask humbly, by the love you particularly owe me, not to abandon me to human caprice; but ask eagerly for divine counsel, as particularly incumbent upon you, and work diligently, so that as His will is done in heaven, so it will be on earth.

Bernard’s writings, such as his influential letters to Pope Eugenius III embody the very soul of feudalism. Eugenius III and other officials listened to Bernard’s advice. The Church appreciated Bernard’s outspoken example as a leader of his day, and in 1170, only 17 years after his death, Bernard was canonized.

If Bernard’s work represents the religious end of feudalistic writings, then the work of John of Salisbury represents the political theory of the period. John of Salisbury (1120?-1180) studied in France under some of the greatest minds of the era: Peter Abelard, William of Conches, and Thierry of Chartres, among others. He was the secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury for years and Bishop of Chartres for the last four years of his life. John is best known for two works of political scholarship, both of which were influential among scholastic philosophers in his own day. Metalogicus (1159) painted a portrait of scholarly life, criticized educational practices, and explored the debates of teaching methods and theories. John’s work marked him as a humanist, a thinker concerned with the betterment of humankind through reason and learning.

His second work, also completed in 1159, was Policraticus: Of the Frivolities of Courtiers and the Footprints of Philosophers. In this treatise on government John set out the criteria by which political systems should be judged. He used the familiar metaphor of the human body to show how all parts of the political body should work together in harmony and reciprocity, thus satisfying natural law, divine will, and the general good. Policraticus, arguably the first work of medieval political theory, strengthened the core of feudalism with its praise of balance, mutual obligation, and loyalty between superiors and their dependents:

None the less, in order to address generally each one and all, they are not to exceed the limits, namely, law, and are to concentrate on the public utility in all matters. For inferiors must serve superiors, who on the other hand ought to provide all necessary protection to their inferiors. For this reason, Plutarch says that what is to the advantage of the humbler people, that is, the multitude, is to be followed; for the fewer always submit to the more numerous. Therefore, magistrates were instituted for the reason that injuries might be averted and the republic itself might put shoes, as it were, on its workers. For when they are exposed to injuries it is as if the republic is barefoot; there can be nothing more ignominious for those who administer the magistracies. Indeed, an afflicted people is like proof and irrefutable demonstration of the ruler’s gout. The health of the whole republic will only be secure and splendid if the superior members devote themselves to the inferiors and if the inferiors respond likewise to the legal rights of their superiors, so that each individual may be likened to a part of the others reciprocally…

Bernard of Clairvaux’s letter and John of Salisbury’s treatise, one a glimpse of feudal thought in action and the other a window into feudal thought in theory, represent the non-fiction writings of the era. The High Middle Ages, however, was known as a renaissance in poetry, music, and fiction. Perhaps the most long-lived contribution of the age is the birth of Arthurian literature. One of the earliest examples of King Arthur’s exploits appeared in the tenth- or eleventh-century collection known as The Black Book of Carmathen. The author and exact date of the work is unknown, but the impact of it and its Arthurian contemporaries cannot be overestimated. Not only did the stories entertain, but they also instructed readers in the political tenets of feudalism and the corresponding values of chivalry.

In one poem, a dialogue between Arthur and a porter known as Glewlwyd Mighty-grip, Arthur introduces his men and, with them, the traits he prizes in them: fearlessness, wisdom, and faithfulness. His men have fulfilled their obligation to him by fighting for him and counseling him. In return, Arthur is looking after his duty toward them, reminding Glewlwyd that “a lord would protect them.” Arthur is portrayed as a proper lord with worthy dependents who honor the feudal contract with their superior. The reciprocal relationship they share is personal and affectionate, and it encourages the chivalric virtues in them all. When readers thrilled to the adventures of the king and his knights, they also received instruction on the complex relationships of the feudal system.

[Glewlwyd:] Who comes with you? [Arthur:] The best men in the world. [Glewlwyd:] To my house you will not come unless you deliver them [Arthur:] I shall deliver them and you will see them. Wythnaint, Elei, and Sywyon, these three; Mabon son of Modron, servant of Uther Pendragon, Cystaint son of Banon, And Gwyn Godybrion; harsh were my servants in defending their rights. Manawydan son of Lyr, profound was his counsel. Manawyd carried off Shields pierced and battle-stained. And Mabon son of Mellt stained the grass with blood. And Anwas the Winged and Lluch of the Striking Hand, they were defending on the borders of Eidyn. A lord would protect them; my nephew would give them recompense.

Later in the Middle Ages the tone of works began to deviate from fictional and non-fictional positive, unapologetic views of feudalism. Books such as Brunetto Latini’s The Book of Treasure (1266) and John Wyclif’s On the Duty of the King(1379) and later works by Christine de Pisan and Machiavelli, among others, shifted the emphasis from chivalric virtues and reciprocal obligations among the people to focus on the power of the king. This shift ushered in a new era of nation-states with powerful monarchs and bring an end to the Middle Ages and its system of feudalism.

Bernard of Clairvaux, John of Salisbury, and The Black Book of Carmathen all illuminated some aspect of feudalism as a political system. One document, however, embodied feudalism more than any other: the Magna Carta, or The Great Charter of English Liberty Decreed by King John. John did not originate the idea of the charter; on the contrary, he signed it under compulsion from his barons and the Church in 1215. The impulse for the combined lay and religious demand for the compact rested squarely in feudal thought. The King, as the greatest lord in the country, still owed duties and responsibilities to his vassals. The barons and Church forced John, who extended his powers whenever possible, to recognize his obligations and to place himself under the same law as his subjects. The claims against John flowed directly from the notion of the feudal contract. John’s signature not only reinstated the monarch’s acceptance of his feudal relationships, but it also paved the way for the English and U.S. constitutions.

60. Moreover all the subjects of our realm, clergy as well as laity, shall, as far as pertains to them, observe, with regard to their vassals, all these aforesaid customs and liberties which we have decreed shall, as far as pertains to us, be observed in our realm with regard to our own….

63. Wherefore we will and firmly decree that the English church shall be free, and that the subjects of our realm shall have and hold all the aforesaid liberties, rights and concessions, duly and in peace, freely and quietly, fully and entirely, for themselves and their heirs, from us and our heirs, in all matters and in all places, forever, as has been said. Moreover it has been sworn, on our part as well as on the part of the barons, that all these above mentioned provisions shall be observed with good faith and without evil intent. The witnesses being the above mentioned and many others. Given through our hand, in the plain called Runnimede between Windsor and Stanes, on the fifteenth day of June, in the seventeenth year of our reign.

Even the Magna Carta, which captured a feudal moment in time while also anticipating later constitutional theory, could not halt the European evolution toward powerful monarchs ruling centralized nation-states. Even as John agreed to the demands of the barons and the Church, the days of the Middle Ages were numbered.

Theory in Action

Regardless of where it was found, feudalism in all of its forms shared certain characteristics. It was localized, not centralized; it was based on personal relationships; and it outlined hierarchies of people from superiors to subordinates. What this meant for the lands in which feudalism developed, however, differed according to the place and its past history.

One of the debates surrounding feudalism is the question of its true source: Roman organization as widely implemented by the Roman Empire, or Germanic traditions as found in the tribal systems of Germany? Perhaps the best answer to this is to accept both foundations as precursors to the feudal system. Without the vacuum of authority created by the dissolution of the Roman institutions, much of the West would not have needed the local hierarchies or personal relationships of feudalism. On the other hand, without the Germanic comitatus and the model of its operation, much of the West might not have evolved the practices of feudalism. The political theory and practice owed much to both sets of precursors.

Where feudalism evolved, however, determined what the system meant for each place. For example, lands that once had been under the control of the Roman Empire such as France and England had experienced efficient, centralized, large-scale governance by a distant ruler. The fall of Rome and rise of feudalism meant a general decentralization of power, an entropy of authority. By contrast, other areas such as Germany and Russia had experienced very localized governance at the level of the small village or nomadic tribe. The rise of the feudal system with its hierarchies and contracts meant an evolution in the way people ordered themselves, a standardization of practices, even a growth in organized authority. What was a disintegration of government for some was actually an increase in government for others.

Even those areas with similar backgrounds experienced feudalism differently, according to regional influences. France and England, for instance, shared a past as part of the Roman Empire. For both, the loss of concentrated authority in Rome, and the infrastructure and information that came with it, meant a drastic change to a system less uniform, stable, and distant. But the feudalism that developed in each country was unique.

The French Experience

The French form of the feudal system is the one often taken as the model of true feudalism in practice. This is largely due to the fact that the French monarchs devised their power solely from the feudal pyramid, rather than sometimes using extra-feudal power to trump the feudal contract. One useful illustration is that of King Louis VI and his attempt to settle the problem between the Count of Auvergne and the Bishop of Clermont. The king believed the count was at fault in a dispute with the bishop. So, in 1126, Louis VI with his forces mounted an expedition against the Count of Auvergne.

Duke William VIII intervened, and stopped the potentially violent campaign against the count. The duke was a sworn vassal of Louis VI and was also the lord of the count, who was a sworn vassal to him. According to the feudal contract, William reminded his lord and his vassal, the king could not decide who was guilty and punish that party. Justice required a trial, and it was the duke’s responsibility as the count’s lord to provide it. The court of Auvergne was summoned, and the issue was decided by the feudal court procedure. Even the king was constrained by the due process of the feudal justice system. The fact that he was a king—and a foreign one at that—did not absolve him from the law.

Even foreign monarchs were held accountable under French feudalism. For generations, the kings of England held French lands that had been donated to them by French kings, for example. The infamous King John, King of England from 1199 to 1216, lost these lands because he had failed his duties as a vassal to the King of France. The fact that he was a ruler of another nation did not place him about the feudal contract in France.

English Feudalism

The English experience with feudalism was different. William the Conqueror’s insistence that the feudal oath did not outweigh the loyalty a subject must feel for his sovereign set the stage for the ultimate trumping power of the monarchs over the standard feudal system. The Norman Conquest introduced the idea that all of the land belonged to the king, so even if land had been granted as a fief in several transactions, stepping down the feudal pyramid with each one, no one could claim the land was his alone, independent of the crown. William therefore insisted that all vassals holding fiefs take the Oath of Salisbury (1086), which meant they had to swear an oath of fealty to the king.

Henry I, King of England from 1100 to 1135, later insisted that all oaths of fealty include a reservation proclaiming loyalty to the king. The balance of power tipped from feudal courts to royal decisions, and the monarch’s power grew. By the time of King John’s reign (1199-1216), the monarch could afford his own army independent of those raised by lords from among their vassals. In a real sense, the conspiracy of the barons that led to the Magna Carta in 1215 was based on an assertion of feudal rights: the Magna Carta stated that the king was not above the law. Even the Magna Carta could not halt the consolidation of power in the sovereign, however. As the thirteenth century drew to a close, the monarchy’s power eclipsed the balance provided by feudalism, and the system declined.

Feudal Germany

In still a third variation of feudalism, Germany’s version was characterized by an emphasis on the role of princes. Feudalism evolved in Germany as it did elsewhere, but was reorganized and strengthened by Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor from 1155 to 1190 and King of Germany from 1152 to 1190. In 1180, Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, failed to appear as required before the royal court, which was acting in its feudal capacity as the lord’s court. This breach of Henry’s duty as a vassal caused him to lose his imperial fiefs.

The powerful margraves and dukes who sup ported the King’s pursuit of feudal due process against Henry received their reward when Frederick reorganized the state apparatus to more closely follow a feudal model. These aristocrats became princes of the empire, a new order of privileged lords whose vassals by law had to be of lesser class and rank. Although fiefs usually reverted to lords—and, in the case of the princes, to the king—upon the death of the vassal, these princes built a custom of inheritance among themselves that took increasingly more land out of the hands of the monarch. Thus Germany developed a powerful class of lords that checked the authority of the monarch and remained dedicated to many, if not all, feudal processes. The fiefs owned by the major feudal princes later became the modern German states such as Austria and Prussia.

Feudalism in Japan

Though England, France, and Germany experienced variations on the theme of feudalism, none was quite as different as the form that developed in Japan, if for no other reason than its longevity. The Japanese system evolved in the religious climate of Confucianism and Zen Buddhism, with an emphasis on the family and its honor. Beginning in the eighth century, the royal court could not afford to maintain all of the members of the Japanese imperial family in regal style. Some family members therefore obtained tax-free estates in lieu of court support. Territorial barons known as daimyo administered these lands. By the twelfth century, the daimyo had amassed power as great if not greater than the emperor. Eventually one would rise up to become shogun, a feudal military leader who served as the emperor’s deputy and in effect ruled Japan. The rise of the shogunate system led to an institutionalized, imposed feudalism based around military leadership.

The Japanese civil wars of the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries did not dissolve feudal thought; after Ieyasu Tokugawa reunified Japan, the daimyo who had opposed him were made hereditary vassals to those who had supported him before 1600. The daimyo of both sides relied on the samurai, the parallel of European knights, to maintain military and civil administration on their lands. The bushido, like the code of chivalry in the West, developed to explain and express the values and virtues of the system. Though the Tokugawa shoguns tried to shift authority away from the daimyo, eventually those in Western Japan overthrew the shogunate in 1868 in what is known as the Meiji Restoration. The emperor then accepted the fiefs back from the barons and expanded his own authority. By 1871, the feudal privileges of the daimyo were no more. The last vestiges of feudal thought, however, survived with the practice of emperor worship until 1945.

Analysis and Critical Response

Feudalism as a system had strengths and weaknesses. When weighing them, it is important to view feudalism in its historical context and in the abstract, as a political theory. These two different windows into feudalism provide useful means of assessing its positive and negative traits.


In the historical view, feudalism had many benefits. First and foremost, it provided a form of order to fill the vacuum in the West created by the fall of the Roman Empire. Internal strife, civil wars, and territorial disputes might have been more frequent and more violent had the system of personal, binding relationships not connected the people of each region. Of course feudalism brought with it its own form of arms race in the West, and certainly included its own form of bloodshed, but the decentralized order it brought to the West was far better than the chaos that might have reigned.

The localized nature of the system also allowed a certain natural defense for the manor. As a nearly self-sufficient unit, the manor sustained those who lived on it; they could be cut off from contact with others due to the spread of fighting or disease and survive. In an era of sporadic hostilities and virulent plagues, the manor was a protective harbor for many individuals.

This order in the West developed a symbiotic relationship with the institution of the Church, relying on it for its infrastructure at times, competing with it for authority at other times, and sometimes even helping to preserve its own internal hierarchy. Such a relationship allowed groups such as the monks and nuns of the monastic orders to focus their energies on learning and education. Many of the classic works from antiquity survived through the work of monastics who translated and protected copies of the texts. Without these efforts, modern civilization would have lost much of the classical knowledge of the Greeks and Romans, among others.

The code of chivalry that grew up in support of and in harmony with the feudal system also spawned a cultural renaissance in the High Middle Ages. Monarchs such as Eleanor of Aquitaine were inspired by the values of courage, loyalty, and courtly love, and they supported artists and authors and poets who extolled chivalric virtues. Women authors and artists were published and celebrated, and new heroes of history and fiction became larger than life. The feudal era gave birth to the legends of King Arthur, among others, and left an indelible mark on the imagination of the West.

Feudalism therefore provided important opportunities for the literate elite. It also, however, provided new protection to the less educated. Although the lords still exercised great control—and, in the wrong hands, even tyranny—against the lowest individuals in the feudal hierarchy, the serfs who worked the land, these peasants enjoyed more rights protection under the feudal system than elsewhere. For example, the Roman system recognized human slavery and expected that some classes of people had little if any claim to certain basic living standards. The manorial system of feudalism, however, provided for courts to solve disputes and even a primitive form of insurance against crop failure, disease, and other disasters. Serfs had responsibilities to their lords, but in return the lords also had certain duties toward the serfs. This system wasn’t perfect, but it did represent an evolution in the notion of individual rights.


Historically speaking, feudalism also had its negative traits, as well. Internally, it carried the seeds of its own destruction, in the West and elsewhere. The lords—or, depending on the place, the Church or princes or barons—became powerful fiefholders who in many circumstances altered the feudal rules to concentrate more wealth and power in their class. As the status of these groups grew, they threatened the authority of those above them. Monarchs responded by trying to shift authority back to their side and centralize power in themselves. This inherent instability in the feudal system disrupted the balance on which the feudal pyramid relied and eventually led to the rise of the nation-state and the powerful despots who ruled them.

Furthermore, the rise of the towns threatened the very fabric of feudalism. The manorial system, with its local economy of agriculture and manufacturing, led to the rise of the town, in which specialist artisans pursued their trade and eventually became financially independent. Like the manors themselves, these towns grew into partial self-sufficiency. With freedom, money, and accomplishment, the townspeople formed a new middle class that somehow did not fit in the traditional hierarchical pattern of the feudal pyramid. Were the townspeople lords or vassals? To whom did they owe duties and responsibilities? Of course most townspeople fell under the rule of a monarch, but this indicated a sovereign/subject relationship, not necessarily a lord/vassal one. The towns, in a sense, outgrew the feudal system and helped to enable the rise of the powerful monarchies.

Feudalism also had a weakness externally. The same decentralization that offered benefits at the time also meant that feudalistic lands were susceptible to attacks from the outside. With private armies attached to lords and their manors, and communication difficult and time-consuming, feudal lands faced extreme difficulties when trying to offer coordinated resistance to attackers. In Europe, invasions from the north, east, and south contributed to the fall of feudalism. The localism of the system made its lands easy to divide and conquer.

Of course, if feudalism is judged ahistorically, one of the most obvious criticisms it would face is that of its exclusive nature. With the exception of certain aspects of the code of chivalry, feudalism applied only to men. Women were treated as property, not as property holders. The equation of lord and vassal, superior and dependent, did not include women as a factor at all. In the context of history, however, this exclusivity is no more surprising than the class-consciousness that pervaded the system. In the Roman Empire and elsewhere, women often were treated with the same degree of political dismissal. It is worth note, however, that the feudal era did provide several stunning examples of women in positions of power and prestige, including rulers such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, authors such as Marie de France and Christine de Pisan, and even fictional characters of import such as Guinevere and Morgan of Arthurian romance—not necessarily flattering images of femininity, but certainly powerful ones. Moreover, the code of chivalry provided protection, if not equality, for women as long as their birth was somewhat noble. These small improvements notwithstanding, feudalism’s strength did not lie in its inclusiveness.

Contract Theory

Apart from its historical context, feudalism also had strengths and weaknesses as a theory. Perhaps its greatest contribution is the formulation of contract theory. Feudal lords and vassals owed each other duties and responsibilities. Over time, these became understood, and either party had the right to make legal claims against the other if the compact was not followed. This principle remained in common law and not only governed individuals, but also extended to the compact theory of government—the idea that government is a contract between the governors and the governed—which made possible the evolved constitution of Great Britain and the written Constitution of the United States. Ironically enough for a system that for centuries lacked a formal, written political theory, feudalism influenced modern political and legal thought in a key and lasting manner.


Another aspect of feudalism that provided positive and negative points was the fact that the decentralized spontaneous order allowed hierarchies to exist due to the intense personal nature of the relationships involved. Vassals did not pledge allegiance to a symbol; they placed their hands in the hands of their lords and looked them in the eye. The appeals to loyalty, honor, and personal reputation needed to ensure that both sides met their obligations were much more likely to be motivating factors when those involved really knew each other. The system survived as long as it did due to this built-in personalized process.

Moreover, the decentralization of feudalism meant that each manor and its court could tailor social and legal traditions around the specific needs of the people involved. Regional preferences regarding behavior and religion survived because no general, external law applied to everyone across the continent. This informal, organic system streamlined processes and contributed to the self-sufficiency of the manors. Just as social and legal traditions were scattered, so were military personnel. The decentralization of armed forces meant that organized, devastating warfare was very difficult and expensive to undertake. The Crusades notwithstanding, this lack of unity meant that large- scale violence was less prevalent under the feudal system than it became under the great monarchies.

The competing legal systems and private armies of feudalism did make it difficult for nationalism to take hold across Europe. As the feudal era was in decline, monarchs faced the tremendous task of standardizing the law, consolidating the military, and constructing smooth lines of communication. The resulting nation-states gained many capabilities—coherent policy, exploration, diplomacy, etc.—but lost the personal relationships, tailored legal precedents, and, in some cases, individual liberty enjoyed under the feudal system. The rise of the great monarchs made widespread technological and scientific achievements possible, but it also made large- scale persecution and warfare equally viable. The increased stability of the nation-states was bought at the price of the freedom enjoyed under the more local and informal nature of feudalism.

As a theory, feudalism is difficult to isolate. What is the best image of feudalism? The manorial court? The Round Table? The samurai? Is it the provincialism of the French serfs or the extravagance of the German princes? The adaptiveness of feudalism, its ability to show different faces in different times and places, makes its study a unique challenge. This adaptiveness made it possible for feudalism to survive for more than 1,500 years.