Feudalism is the political, economic and social system that developed in European countries during the Middle Ages. This system was maintained approximately between the 9th and 15th centuries, although it did not present a monolithic and uniform character during this time.

In summary, the main characteristic of feudalism is that it divided the population into two large social groups: lords and vassals. These categories, which were acquired almost exclusively by birth, determined all areas of life.

Feudal mode of production

Origin of feudalism

The word feudalism has its origin in the term feud. A fief was nothing more than the territory that the nobles received from the kings, as payment for their services, during the Middle Ages. Therefore, this practice can be pointed out as one of the bases on which feudalism would be configured.

The origin of feudalism is located at the time when the Carolingian Empire disintegrated in the 9th century. In such a situation, the monarchs began to have serious difficulties in defending their possessions. This led to the kings who reigned after the fall of the Carolingian Empire were forced to seek the support of nobles, especially counts and marquises, in exchange for giving up part of the royal power, as well as lands in which they would have almost absolute power: the fiefdoms.

During these moments, it is possible to detect how a crisis of power occurs and the feeling of insecurity spreads. At the same time, commerce and industry enter into a serious crisis and the economy becomes, basically, subsistence. Land ownership becomes the key element in determining the power that each individual holds.

The social structure, based on the social level that it occupies, was configured from the practice of vassalage and servitude. The vassalage, which was a pact that was established between nobles, that is, free men, was the protection that a powerful man offers to another with less power, in exchange for loyalty and military aid. Servitude, for its part, was the relationship that existed between a peasant in relation to his feudal lord. The peasant was forced to work the land and to live within the manor, in exchange for some protection.

Characteristics of feudalism

Among the main characteristics that we can highlight some that will help us understand what feudalism consists of:

  • Social division, with a strong hierarchy, in two estates: Lords (privileged) and vassals (not privileged). Among the lords were nobles and clergy. The common people made up the underprivileged estate. That is, the population that produced and paid taxes to the lords, in exchange for, theoretically, physical and spiritual protection.
  • Disappearance of a central power and expansion of fiefdoms that assumed state functions: Legislation, taxes and justice.
  • The loyalty of vassalage configured a system of personal dependence between individuals: This personal loyalty replaced ties based on states or territorial political structures.
  • Rural life intensified: Thanks to the predominant role of land in the economy. Consequently, the urban world was reduced to its minimum expression, in a process of deurbanization that began in the last days of the Roman Empire.
  • The Catholic Church consolidated itself as an actor of the first order politically, socially, economically and culturally: With an important earthly power, based on its territorial possessions and acquired prestige.

As we can see, feudal society had many characteristics. So if you want to know more about the social classes of feudalism, we leave you a link that explains it in detail.

Social pyramid of feudalism

Causes and consequences of feudalism

Although feudalism had extensive and varied causes and consequences, we will try to summarize them below:

Causes of feudalism

The main causes of feudalism are as follows:

  • Fall of the Roman Empire: The first cause that we can cite and that gives rise to feudalism is the fall of the Roman Empire.
  • Lack of protection: The lack of an organization and a hierarchy between countries, caused the invasions to be constant. This gave rise to the need to look for systems that ensure security.
  • Political instability: The two previous points, leads us to political instability. The fall of a great empire and the lack of security, gave rise to very unstable political systems. The monarchs could no longer protect their territories.
  • Bad weather and bad harvests: As if all this were not enough, the weather was not good and many societies literally disappeared. It is not a cause that is often cited, but experts recognize its importance.

Consequences of feudalism

The consequences of feudalism are described below:

  • Rural economy: The economic expansion took a back seat and the great civilizations stopped developing at the same rate. Most of the economic activity that took place was in the countryside and under the supervision of the privileged social classes.
  • Disappearance of free trade: Free trade disappeared and surplus production was conspicuous by its absence. Economic incentives were scarce and the laws forced the lower social classes to serve the privileged ones.
  • Private protection: One of the most prominent consequences of feudalism was the absence of a robust army. It was the lords who were in charge of protecting the vassals, in exchange for the feudal income.
  • Creation of localized communities: In line with security and rural activity, many localized communities were created. It was no longer necessary to protect a great empire, but a part of land that was worked to live.

European feudalism in the Middle Ages

The feudal economy had a mainly agricultural character. This was logical in a context of intensification of rural life, based on relations of vassalage and servitude.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, which was based on an important urban network, economic development was halted. However, from the 10th century on, a process of innovation in agricultural technology would begin, which would intensify from the 12th century on.

In summary, the main advances that we can highlight are:

  • The improvement of the water mills. In the Iberian Peninsula, under Muslim rule, irrigation techniques were perfected, with extensive networks of ditches.
  • Hitching methods for the animals were also improved, facilitating cultivation. The fallow spread across central Europe, which allowed, through the rotation of the soil, greater efficiency in agricultural production.

These advances that, little by little, developed and expanded throughout Europe, meant an increase in production. With this, the bases were laid for a demographic increase to take place, along with an increasing production.

The advances of feudalism in Europe

In parallel, a certain freedom was established, since the serfs, less and less, were forced to work the lands of the lords permanently. And, increasingly, these benefits become contributions to the Lord in money, in kind or in gold and silver. At the same time, land leases proliferate, which are worked by the peasants for themselves, in exchange for rent.

The increase in production, which generated a surplus, and a certain freedom on the part of the serfs, allowed the development of an incipient and archaic market. However, with the passage of time, this fact would allow a new urban rebirth that, from the fourteenth century, would begin to illuminate the birth of a new era: the Renaissance.

Crisis and end of feudalism

The crisis of feudalism begins from the thirteenth century and progresses gradually until the fifteenth century, the date of the end of feudalism.

The thirteenth century was a time when agricultural techniques reached a significant level of development. Thanks to this, the surplus was increasing, which allowed profound changes to take place in the organization of society.

In other words, the starting point of the decline of feudalism was the development of increasingly productive techniques by the peasants and the underprivileged social classes.

At the same time, the artisans were consolidated and the cooperation between them allowed them to improve their long-term growth possibilities.

However, it would not be until the 14th century when the Black Death, widespread discontent, continuous wars and a changing climate ravaged the population.

  • The Black Death claimed the lives of more than 30% of the population at that time. This also caused religion to go into crisis and many people question their beliefs.
  • Although cultivation techniques had greatly improved, the lords' ambition to expand and grow resulted in progressively less fertile lands. Which, together with population growth and bad weather, caused production to be insufficient.
  • Finally, the two previous points generated a climate of social discontent that put an end to feudalism and gave rise to capitalist society.

Therefore, it can be said that feudalism was diverse. In each territory it had specific characteristics. At the same time, it did not remain unchanged, but underwent major changes, as new techniques, forms of production and new markets developed.

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