combination of legal and military customs and form of government in medieval Europe

Feudalism, also known as the feudal system, was the combination of the legal, economic, military, cultural and political customs that flourished in medieval Europe between the 9th and 15th centuries. Broadly defined, it was a way of structuring society around relationships that were derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labour. Although it is derived from the Latin word feodum or feudum (fief), which was used during the Medieval period, the term feudalism and the system which it describes were not conceived of as a formal political system by the people who lived during the Middle Ages. The classic definition, by François Louis Ganshof (1944), describes a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations which existed among the warrior nobility and revolved around the three key concepts of lords, vassals, and fiefs.

Investiture of a knight (miniature from the statutes of the Order of the Knot, founded in 1352 by Louis I of Naples).
Orava Castle in Slovakia. A medieval castle is a traditional symbol of a feudal society.

Quotes edit

  • Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. In the Middle Ages when the feudal lords who inhabited the castles whose towers may still be seen along the Rhine concluded to enlarge their domains, to increase their power, their prestige and their wealth they declared war upon one another. But they themselves did not go to war any more than the modern feudal lords, the barons of Wall Street go to war. The feudal barons of the Middle Ages, the economic predecessors of the capitalists of our day, declared all wars. And their miserable serfs fought all the battles. The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon one another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another and to cut one another's throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt. And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose — especially their lives. They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people. And here let me emphasize the fact — and it cannot be repeated too often — that the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war and they alone make peace. Yours not to reason why; Yours but to do and die. That is their motto and we object on the part of the awakening workers of this nation. If war is right let it be declared by the people. You who have your lives to lose, you certainly above all others have the right to decide the momentous issue of war or peace.
  • [W]e have all heard how Mr. Cobden, who is a very eminent person, has said, in a very memorable speech, that England was the victim of the feudal system, and we have all heard how he has spoken of the barbarism of the feudal system, and of the barbarous relics of the feudal system. Now, if we have any relics of the feudal system, I regret that not more of it is remaining... Now, what is the fundamental principle of the feudal system, gentlemen? It is that the tenure of all property shall be the performance of its duties. Why, when the Conqueror carved out parts of the land, and introduced the feudal system, he said to the recipient, "You shall have that estate, but you shall do something for it: you shall feed the poor; you shall endow the Church; you shall defend the land in case of war; and you shall execute justice and maintain truth to the poor for nothing."
    • Benjamin Disraeli, speech in Shrewsbury (9 May 1843), quoted in Selected Speeches of the Late Right Honourable the Earl of Beaconsfield, Volume I, ed. T. E. Kebbel (1882), pp. 50-51
  • The principle of the feudal system, the principle which was practically operated upon, was the noblest principle, the grandest, the most magnificent and benevolent that was ever conceived by sage, or ever practised by patriot.
    • Benjamin Disraeli, speech in Shrewsbury (9 May 1843), quoted in Selected Speeches of the Late Right Honourable the Earl of Beaconsfield, Volume I, ed. T. E. Kebbel (1882), p. 51
  • Studying Russian history from the West European perspective, one also becomes conscious of the effect that the absence of feudalism had on Russia. Feudalism had created in the West networks of economic and political institutions that served the central state, once it replaced the feudal system, as a source of social support and relative stability. Russia knew no feudalism in the traditional sense of the word, since, after the emergence of the Muscovite monarchy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, all landowners were tenants-in-chief of the Crown, and subinfeudation was unknown. As a result, all power was concentrated in the Crown.
    • Richard Pipes, Three “Whys” of the Russian Revolution (1995), pp. 17-18
  • Under the feudal system, it was the duty of every great lord to serve the King in battle, bringing with him so many armed vassals, each of whom in turn brought so many lesser vassals of his own, and so on down the whole scale of hierarchy. Each vassal was bound by oath of allegiance to his own lord and to his own lord only, "while their lives should last"; consequently, if a great lord was killed in battle, his followers were automatically released from their allegiance; they could—and some did—retire from the conflict and take no more part in it. Similarly, if he was taken prisoner or fled from the field, they were left without leader and tended to disintegrate. Hence it was of enormous importance that a lord should lead his men boldly, fight with conspicuous bravery and (if possible) not get killed, or even unhorsed, lest his followers should lose sight of him and become discouraged. This is why Ganelon is so insistent that, if only Roland can be got rid of, the flower of the French army, most of whom are Roland's vassals, will melt away; and this is why, when Marsilion is wounded and flees, the whole Saracen army turns tail. Similarly, when, in the final great battle, the Emperor Charlemagne and the Emir Baligant, lord of all Islam, meet face to face, the whole issue of the war hangs upon their encounter. Baligant falls; and the entire Paynim army at once flees the field.

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