I’ve had a few conversations over the past couple of weeks which have persuaded me it might be worth writing a short post about feudalism as a historiographical concept, instead of reporting on my research project’s latest news. There’s still a lot of confusion out there around this issue, it seems: and what better means of resolving that confusion than a 700 word blog?
I say write, but really I mean summarise, because this blog is based squarely on Chris Wickham’s excellent article on the issue. Unfortunately a) this article is not available online, and b) it’s in Italian – and that justifies, I think, putting the ideas out there in this format. Though if you’re interested, you should definitely go and read the original. Anyway, here goes:
‘Feudalism’ is a concept that has been used in three different historiographical traditions (these are often complicated by national traditions in practice, but they can be separated in principle nevertheless).
- For Marxists, it defines an economic system in which surplus production is extracted from peasant families by coercion. It’s a system in which elites control exchange more than production, which distinguishes it from slavery, or wage labour, or societies where there’s very little surplus extraction at all. There are debates about whether this definition ought to include the privatisation of justice, and whether it should distinguish between tax and rent, since some purists would argue that including these elements makes it too much about the state, and not enough about the economy.
- For those working within a tradition that we might call Annaliste, feudalism refers to a social structure characterised by a number of factors. These usually include a militarised elite that was rewarded by grants of land rather than salary, a dependant peasantry, merely vestigial tax, and a widespread emphasis on loyality and obedience (taken from Marc Bloch’s famous list of characteristics, in a book which still repays reading). This is pretty close to what lots of people would think of as ‘medieval Europe’, but in principle it’s an ideal type that can also be (and has been) applied to different areas and times.
- Finally, the legal tradition, often identified with the great Belgian historian F.-L. Ganshof in the mid 20th century, though actually it’s the oldest of the traditions, reaching back into the 17th century. In this reading, feudalism is used to describe a society dominated by the fief: that is, the grant of land from a lord to a vassal in exchange for service, often closely defined. The implicit comparison here is with societies that are dominated instead by state sovereignty.
Now, all three of these traditions are rich and legitimate fields of debate, developed over decades. And the suggestion sometimes mooted that we should just bypass these debates by banning the word ‘feudalism’ is deeply problematic. That’s partly because the idea of policing vocabulary is inherently alarming. But it’s also because if historian didn’t use words that carry lots of baggage, and that can mean different things to different people, then they couldn’t talk of the ‘Middle Ages’, or ‘Europe’, or ‘society’, or, for that matter, ‘history’. Some historians actually do advocate this kind of particularism out of a horror for ‘models’, preferring only to talk about specifics: but most would see it as excessively reductive, impeding both generalisation and comparison, and it’s almost impossible in practice anyway. And in general, people who claim to be bypassing a debate are normally just taking sides without saying so.
That said, there are two caveats:
- Feudalism shouldn’t be thought to be a real thing – it’s a label, not an entity. Feudalism never ‘did’ anything, or made something happen. So if your argument depends on ‘because of feudalism’, then you should think again.
- If you do want to talk about feudalism – if it’s a useful concept for you in any of its forms – then go ahead. Just make sure you avoid confusion by being clear what you mean by it: otherwise (and trust me on this) the feudalism police will sniff you out and hunt you down, wherever you are. You’ve been warned…
 Chris Wickham, ‘Le forme del feudalesimo’, Settimane di Studio 47, (2000)15-46. The article also tackles the feudal revolution, but there’s lots in English on this, including a book published by CUP in 2013 which I can recommend wholeheartedly, so I’m won’t cover that now.
 Marc Bloch, La société féodale, 2 vols., (Paris, 1939-1940)