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.
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 (these characteristics are taken from Marc Bloch’s famous list, in a classic book published in 1939 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, there’s 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.
It’s sometimes suggested that all this is too complex and confusing, and too wedded to outdated historiographical assumptions, and so that we ought to cut the Gordian knot by simply dropping the word feudalism altogether. People in the Middle Ages, after all, didn’t use the term , so maybe nor should we – it’s a model (or rather a set of models) that we’re imposing on the period.
But though this is an appealing argument at first sight, it’s not quite as compelling as it seems. It’s true that feudalism has baggage, and can mean different things to different people. But so do too lots of other words, like the ‘Middle Ages’, or ‘Europe’, or ‘lordship’, or ‘society’. Some of these words may prove not to be helpful, but not to use abstract words simply on principle would be impede both generalisation and comparison, and it’s almost impossible in practice anyway. The only real question is whether feudalism can highlight certain important aspects of medieval society in ways that are useful: for instance, the contingent nature of property rights, or the relative absence of salaried officials.
Debates about feudalism link us back to older historiographies. But simply to drop the term wouldn’t remove the influence that those historiographies have upon us – it’d just make that influence harder to detect. Much better then to engage with those historiographical legacies rather than to pretend that they don’t exist. All historiographical models (or approaches) themselves have a history – that doesn’t automatically invalidate them, it makes them more interesting. And ultimately we do need some kind of “model” to make sense of the mass of fragmented evidence that survives from this distant past, otherwise we’re just doing antiquarianism.
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.
[Updated Jan 2018]
 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 little book published by CUP in 2013 (ahem), so I’m won’t cover that now.
 Marc Bloch, La société féodale, 2 vols., (Paris, 1939-1940)