Feudalism in Europe came into being during the 9th and 10th centuries. It had its origins under the Frankish Empire where it borrowed from Roman and Germanic traditions.
Initial feudal structures comprised of the king handing out land grants to the nobles who in turn gave land to lords – Lords then hired peasants, bonded or free, to cultivate the land. In return, nobles and lords provided aid to the king during wars and swore their allegiance to him.
Eventually, economic changes caused changes in the social structures of the society which rendered feudalism unsustainable. By the 15th century, feudalism ended in England, by the 18th century its death knell was sounded in France and Russia was among the most belated European countries to abolish feudalism in the mid-19th century.
Feudalism refers to a set of military and legal obligations that shaped society by basing the social hierarchy on land holdings. The status of different classes of society, under feudalism, was determined by the amount of land they owned. So for instance, peasants who didn’t own any land or simply lived on the land of the landowners were the lowest in the social strata.
Feudalism in Europe
Feudalism in Europe emerged somewhere around the 9th century and continued to exist as a dominant social structure until the 15th century. It began when mounted soldiers started establishing landholdings of their own, essentially a result of the decentralization of the power in the Empires. This led to vast land holdings in the hands of these soldiers who eventually became the nobility and the land was further subdivided into smaller land holdings which were called ‘fiefs’.
Rise of Feudalism
Feudalism in Western Europe arose in the area under the Frankish Empire during the 9th and 10th centuries. It arose because after Frankish armies and soldiers settled down, they were able to secure landholdings. Since previous social structures as were present during the Roman era had crumbled in Western Europe, feudalism emerged as a viable alternative for the new social circumstances. This is why it rapidly spread to other parts of Europe as well.
The Fall of Rome was a catalyst for the Medieval Feudal System
Feudalism in England
Feudalism in England was brought to England by the French Duke of Normandy after his Norman conquest in 1066. After the invasion, William replaced the prevalent Anglo-Saxon aristocracy with a Norman-French nobility and this nobility began using feudal practices.
After the conquest, William had claimed all of the lands in England and then divided it between his own soldiers and barons. In the feudal set-up, peasants were given land holdings that they could cultivate and live on in return for the provided labor to landowners. Following the Black Death in the 14th century, feudalism began to decline in England.
Feudalism in France
Feudalism in medieval Western Europe first emerged in France during the 9th and 10th centuries. Originally the land was granted by the King to the nobles for their lifetime and the King could reclaim the land.
However, over the years, the royal hold over the lands diminished and nobles began to hold land which was passed down as hereditary. This eventually led to greater power over their land, and greater independence, attained by the nobles and gave birth to feudalism. Feudalism in France was abolished in the 17th century after the French Revolution.
Crown owned lands under the medieval feudal system in France
Abolition of Feudalism in France
After the French Revolution in the 17th century, the National Constituent Assembly entirely abolished feudalism in France on August 4, 1789. The abolishment was directed both at the lands held by the nobility as well as the lands held by the Church. With the abolishment of feudalism, all the feudal privileges of the nobility were also revoked.
Feudalism in Germany
The feudal system in Germany comprised the King granting land to the upper vassals. These upper vassals, in turn, granted land to the lower vassals. Lower vassals used bonded peasants to cultivate the land. Between each tier, loyalty and help during the war were the prices that had to be paid in return for the grant of land. Knights were also able to hold fiefs, although they didn’t have any land grants.
Feudalism in Germany
Feudalism in Germany was a mixture of the legacy of the Roman system of patronage and the clan society of the Germanic kingdoms. In the Roman patronage system, a rich and influential patron essentially protected his clients in all aspects.
In return, the clients accompanied and aided the patron in the war and other aspects. In Germanic kingdoms, all land belonged to the king who distributed portions of it among his faithful nobles. These influences eventually gave birth to proper feudalism in Germany under the Carolingian Kings.
The decline of Feudalism in Europe
The bedrock of feudalism was the need for the King to get armed help from nobles in return for land.
Over time, the organization and nature of the armies became more sophisticated and it came to increasingly comprise professional soldiers and mercenaries, who would fight for money or a fixed pay, as opposed to the knights and fighting men provided by nobles in the early days of feudalism.
English longbowmen Mercenaries
This trend was coupled with many events such as the Black Death, changes in the economy from land-based to money-based, and the increasingly greater cognizance among the peasants of their rights which culminated in the Peasants’ Revolt in England and similar revolts in other parts of Europe.
A peasants’ revolt against King Richard II was crushed
The Black Death also caused a dearth of labor which further affected the social hierarchical relationships in feudal English society. The decline of feudalism in England by the 14th century also marked similar trends all over Europe.
End of Feudalism in Europe
The decline of feudalism was happening all over Europe by the 14th century. By the beginning of the 16th century, feudalism had already ended in most parts of Europe.
However, it remained in France where the 18th century French Revolution put a final end to it. Similarly, in Russia feudalism went on well until the mid-19th century when serfdom was finally abolished and marked an end to Russian feudalism.
The end of feudalism in most parts of Europe was also an effect of the Renaissance and the consequent Industrial Revolution which increased the demand for waged labor.