Feudalism – and Manorialism

Feudalism is a controversial word among the mediaeval historians, but I believe it is a very useful term.

In its strictest sense, it has a very restricted meaning, that of the relationship between a superior lord and a junior lord or vassal: the vassal pledges fealty to his lord in return for a fief, which is a grant of land, while in return the vassal promises to follow the lord in his wars. A crucial element is a two stage ceremony in which first the vassal pays homage to his lord, and then swears an oath of fealty.

The term was not used in the Middle Ages but first used in the 17th century. However it was popularised by Montesquieu in his De L’Esprit des Lois in 1748 and was subsequently used by French writers as a term to castigate the backwardness of the French monarchy from which it received a derogatory meaning which it still possesses. However a broader use of the term was proposed in 1939 by the French historian Marc Bloch in his book on Feudal Society in which he proposed not limiting it solely to the nobility, but also to include the similar relationship between Lords and peasants.

The term manorialism is sometimes used to denote the similar relationship between the lord of the manor and the peasants but it seems easier to extend the term ‘feudalism’ to include both the relationship between a lord and his vassal and between Lords and peasants throughout the whole range of mediaeval society. Indeed Bloch suggested extending the term to other societies, such the shogun society of medieval Japan.

The advantage of using the term feudalism is that it makes explicit the binding between different classes in the form of a formal oath and the ceremony of paying homage. Such relationships in fact always exist in kinship societies, but they are implicit, not explicit. The problem is the mediaeval historians do not understand anthropology and have never studied kinship societies, so they do not recognize that non-market economies and their social structures are the norm in most of the world for most of history.

The reason why I like to use the term feudalism is that there is no better term for it. ‘Gift exchange’ is a term that was invented in the early days of anthropology but it is not very satisfactory because the exchanges were not of ‘gifts’ in the sense that we understand a gifts today, but brought with them very definite mutual obligations. Similarly the terms ‘tribute’ or ‘dues’ imply a one-way process, the tribute paid from a lower range of society to an upper. ‘Reciprocity’ is a term invented by Polanyi that is rather too much of a mouthful to be useful. Only the term feudalism reflects the dual nature of the relationship and makes explicit the relationship that is implicit between all classes of society in all pre-market economies that have risen above the level of a simple tribal society.