In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Feudalism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • History of the Term

Medieval Studies Feudalism
Constance B. Bouchard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 February 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 06 February 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0018


“Feudalism” is a term that has confused more than clarified the nature of medieval society. Until quite recently scholars attempted to create a paradigm of “feudalism” that would combine privileges for the elite few with lordship over the peasantry and (usually) a breakdown in centralized government. But as Elizabeth A. R. Brown first convincingly demonstrated, a term with such varied and noncongruent social, legal, political, and economic meanings—especially when applied to institutions that developed a millennium or more apart—hampers real understanding of the Middle Ages. In the last twenty years numerous discussions of “feudalism” have gone over the same ground, pointing out the difficulties with trying to use the term—although even now some scholars still try to retain it. Nonetheless, even if “feudalism” is nothing but a confusing construct, medieval fiefs were real—if not nearly as ubiquitous as once thought.

General Overviews

“Feudalism” is not a medieval term and not even a translation of a medieval concept (Abels 2010; Brown 2010; Bouchard 1998). It was first coined long after the Middle Ages were over and originally meant the granting of a fief (feudum in medieval Latin), that is, land given in return for loyalty, by one aristocrat to another. But soon grafted onto this term were many divergent—indeed, contradictory—meanings. It has been used to mean servile peasant status, or the private administration of justice, or battles fought on horseback, or fragmented governmental authority, or special privileges for a hereditary elite. It has been called a social system, a legal system, a form of military service, and a type of economic organization. Brown 1974, Reynolds 1994, and Reynolds 1997 argue convincingly for jettisoning such a confusing word, even though some (Abels 2010, White 2005) still feel the term can be useful if narrowly defined.

  • Abels, Richard. Feudalism. 2010.

    Provides a succinct, modern overview of the different ways “feudalism” has been used by different scholars. Attempts to retain the term to mean social and political ties among a warrior aristocracy, who exercised public power as private individuals.

  • Bouchard, Constance Brittain. “Strong of Body, Brave and Noble”: Chivalry and Society in Medieval France. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.

    Includes a critique of the concept of feudalism in the context of a discussion of knights and chivalry.

  • Brown, Elizabeth A. R. “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe.” American Historical Review 79 (1974): 1063–1088.

    DOI: 10.2307/1869563

    The fundamental article on why the term “feudalism” should be jettisoned.

  • Brown, Elizabeth A. R. Feudalism. 2010.

    A concise overview of the term and its uses, incorporating the most recent scholarship; from the online Encyclopedia Britannica.

  • Reynolds, Susan. Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    Continues the critique of the concept of feudalism begun by Brown 1974. Densely written and somewhat controversial, yet extremely influential.

  • Reynolds, Susan. Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe, 900–1300. 2d ed. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    An effort to provide an alternate theoretical framework to replace feudalism when discussing ties between different sectors of medieval society. Originally published in 1984.

  • White, Stephen D. Re-Thinking Kinship and Feudalism in Early Medieval Europe. Aldershot, UK, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005.

    This collection of articles by a legal historian seeks to retain narrowly defined feudalism as a useful analytic category, while considering its relationship to kinship structures.

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