Feudalism in Europe

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 structure 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 owed their allegiance to him.

Eventually, economic changes caused changes in the social structures of the society which rendered feudalism unsustainable. By 15th century, feudalism ended in England, by 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 The Feudal Pyramid Image

Feudalism in Europe image showing the Hierarchy of the Feudal system

Feudalism Definition

Feudalism refers to a set of military and legal obligations that shaped the 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.

History of 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 land holdings of their own, essentially a result of the decentralisation of the power in the Empires. This lead to vast land holdings in the hands of these soldiers who eventually became the nobility and the land was further subdivided into vassals and fiefs.

Feudalism arose in western Europe because?

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. And 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.

Feudalism in England

Feudalism in England was brought to the country by William The Conqueror after his Norman invasion in the 11th century. 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 land in England and then divided it between his own soldiers and barons. In the feudal set-up, peasants were given land holdings which they could cultivate and live on in return of the provided labour to land-owners. Following the Black Death in the 14th century, feudalism began to decline in England.

Crown lands of France Under Feudalism

Image showing crown lands under the medieval feudal system

History of Feudalism in France

Feudalism in medieval Western Europe first emerged in France during the 9th and 10th century. 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 17th century after the French Revolution.

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 of 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 war was the price 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.

Image Depicts Medieval Feudalism in Europe Hommage du comté de Clermont en Beauvaisis

Image Depicts Medieval Feudalism in Europe Hommage du comté de Clermont en Beauvaisis

History of Feudalism in Germany

Feudalism in Germany was a mixture of the legacy from 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 the distributed portions of it among his faithful nobles. These influences eventually gave birth to proper feudalism in Germany under the Carolingian Kings.

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 organisation and nature of the armies became more sophisticated and it came to increasingly comprise of 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.

This trend was coupled with many events such as the Black Death, changes in economy from land-based to money-based and the increasingly greater cognisance among the peasants of their rights which culminated in the Peasants’ Revolt in England and similar revolts in other parts of Europe. The Black Death also caused a dearth of labour 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.

Medieval Feudalism Tithe Barn

A medieval Tithe Barn used to store one-tenth of the produce of peasants and Serfs

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 the 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 demand for waged labour.

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