When the German invaders conquered the western Roman Empire in the 5th century, they destroyed the professional Roman army and substituted their own armies, made up of warriors who served their chieftains for honor and booty. The warriors fought on foot and lived off the countryside. As long as they fought one another, they needed no cavalry. But when the Muslims, the Vikings, and the Magyars invaded Europe in the 8th, 9th, and 10th centuries, the Germans found themselves unable to deal with these rapidmoving armies. First, Charles Martel in Gaul, then King Alfred in England, and finally Henry the Fowler of Germany provided horses for some of their soldiers to repel the raids into their lands. It is not certain that these troops fought on horseback, but they could pursue their enemies faster mounted than on foot, and as stirrups were then coming into use, it is probable that cavalry actions began to take place in this same period. They were certainly occurring in the 11th century. See also Chivalry.
Early System War horses were expensive, and training in their use took years of practice. To support his cavalry soldiers, Martel gave them estates of land farmed by dependent laborers, which he took from the church. Such estates, called benefices, were given for the duration of the soldiers' service. The soldiers were called vassals (from a Gaelic word meaning servant). The vassals, however, being selected soldiers with whom the Carolingian rulers surrounded themselves, became models for the aristocrats who followed the court. With the breakup of the Carolingian Empire in the 9th century, many powerful men strove to assemble their own bands of mounted vassals, giving them benefices in return for their services. Some of the weaker landowners then found themselves obliged to enter into vassalage and to concede their lands to the lordship of the more powerful, receiving them back as benefices. The greater lords were expected to protect their vassals, as the vassals were expected to serve their benefactors.
Classical Feudalism These military relationships of the 8th and 9th centuries are sometimes described as Carolingian feudalism, but they lack some of the essential features of classical feudalism, which developed in and after the 10th century. It was only toward the year 1000 that the term fief began to be used instead of benefice, and the change of term reflected a change in the institution. Now the estate given a vassal was commonly understood to be hereditary, provided the vassal's heir was satisfactory to the lord, and provided he paid an inheritance tax called a relief. The vassal not only took the oath of fealty, which everyone owed to his lord, but also a special oath of homage to the feudal lord who invested him with a fief. Thus, feudalism was a political as well as military institution, one based upon a contract between two individuals, both of whom held rights in the fief.
Reasons for the Feudal Pattern Warfare was endemic in the feudal period, but feudalism did not cause warfare; warfare caused feudalism. Nor was feudalism responsible for the collapse of the Carolingian Empire; rather, the failure of that state made feudalism necessary. The Carolingian Empire collapsed because it was based on the rule of one man, who did not have institutions sufficiently well developed to carry out his will. The empire's disappearance threatened Europe with anarchy: thousands of individual seigneurs ruling their people entirely independent of any suzerain authority. The bonds of feudalism reknit the local seigneuries into a loose unity, under which the seigneurs gave up only as much of their freedom as was essential to effective cooperation. Under the leadership of their feudal lords, the united vassals were able to fend off invaders and then to create feudal principalities of some size and complexity. When feudalism proved its worth on a local basis, kings and emperors adopted it to strengthen their monarchies.
Maturity Feudalism reached its maturity in the 11th century and flourished in the 12th and 13th centuries. Its cradle was the region between the Rhine and Loire rivers, but in the late 11th century rulers of that region conquered southern Italy and Sicily, England, and, with the First Crusade, the Holy Land. To each place they took their feudal institutions. Southern France, Spain, northern Italy, and Germany also adopted some degree of feudalism in the 12th century. Even central and eastern Europe came under its spell to a limited degree, especially after the Byzantine Empire was feudalized following the Fourth Crusade. But the "feudalisms" of ancient Egypt and Persia, or of China and Japan, were not related to European feudalism and generally were only superficially similar. Perhaps the Japanese samurai most resembled medieval knights, particularly under the Ashikaga shoguns (13361573), but the relationships between lords and vassals in Japan were different from those of Western feudalism.
Characteristics In its classical form Western feudalism assumed that most or, in England, all of the land belonged to the sovereign princebe he king or duke, marquis or countwho held it "of no one but God." The prince then granted fiefs to his barons, who made their oaths of homage and fealty to him and were required to give him political and military service according to the terms of the grant. The barons, in turn, might grant portions of their fiefs to knights who swore homage and fealty to them and served them according to their grants. Thus, if a king granted a fief of a dozen seigneuries to a baron and required the service of ten knights, the baron could grant ten of the seigneuries to ten knights and thus be prepared to provide the required service to the king. Of course, a baron might seek to keep all his fief in his demesne (his personal domain) and keep his knights in his hall, feeding and arming them out of his own pocket; but this was resisted by the knights, who wanted to be seigneurs themselves. Knights might acquire two or more fiefs, and then they too might find it desirable to subgrant what they needed to provide the service for which they were obligated. By such subinfeudation, a feudal pyramid was created, providing the suzerain at the top, and each mesne lord below, with a feudal force of knights to serve him at his summons. Complications occurred when a knight accepted fiefs from more than one lord, but the institution of liege homage was invented to enable him to declare one of his lords his liege lord, whom he would serve personally, while he would send his vassals to serve his other lords. It was also the rule in France that "the lord of my lord is not my lord"; thus, it was not rebellion for a subvassal to fight against his lord's lord. In England, however, William the Conqueror and his successors required their vassals' vassals to take oaths of fealty to them.
Duties of a Vassal Military service in the field was basic to feudalism, but it was far from all that the vassal owed to his lord. When the lord had a castle, he might require his vassals to garrison it, a service called castleguard. The lord also expected his vassals to attend his court in order to give him advice and to participate in judgments of cases concerning other vassals. If the lord had need for money, he might expect his vassals to give him financial aid. During the 12th and 13th centuries many conflicts between lords and their vassals arose over just what services should be rendered. In England it was the Magna Carta that defined the obligations of the king's vassals; for example, they did not have to give financial aid except on the occasion of the marriage of the king's eldest daughter, the knighting of his eldest son, and the king's own ransom. In France it was common to find a fourth occasion for feudal aid: a lord's crusade. Giving advice also led to a demand by the vassals that their assent be sought on those of their lords' decisions that involved them, whether it be war, marriage alliance, taxation, or legal judgment.
Inheritance and Wardship Another area of feudal custom that required definition was that of the succession to fiefs. When fiefs became hereditary, the lord reserved an inheritance tax called a relief, and the size of the relief was often a matter of conflict. Again, in England, the Magna Carta established the relief as £100 for a barony and £5 for a knight's fee; elsewhere, custom varied from fief to fief. Lords reserved the right to secure a useful and loyal holder of a fief. If a vassal died and left a son of full age who was a good knight, the lord had no reason to object to his succession. If the son was a minor, however, or if the heir was female, the lord would want to control the fief until the heir was of age or the heiress married to a man the lord approved of; thus arose the lord's right of wardship for a minor or female heir and his further right of marriage, which might, in some fiefs, lead to his choosing the partner himself. The widow of a vassal had a lifetime right of dower in her husband's fief (commonly a third of the value), and this also led to the lord's interest in her remarriage; in some fiefs he had a full right to control such a remarriage. In the event a vassal died childless, the relationship of his heirs to the lord could vary: Brothers were usually acceptable but cousins might not be. If no heirs were acceptable to the lord, the fief was declared an escheat and returned to his full control; he could then keep it in his demesne or grant it to any knight he chose to make his vassal.
Breach of Contract Because the feudal relationship was contractual, false actions on either side could cause breach of contract. When the vassal failed to perform required services, the lord could bring charges against him in his court before the other vassals, and if they found their peer guilty, he would be declared to have forfeited his fief, which would return to the lord's demesne. If the vassal chose to try to defend his land, the lord might have to go to war against him to win control of the forfeited fief. But the fact that the vassal's peers had found him guilty meant that they were morally as well as legally obligated to enforce their judgment, and it was a rare vassal who would war against his lord and all his peers. On the other hand, if a vassal felt that his lord had failed to live up to his obligations, he could defy the lordthat is, formally break faith with himdeclaring he would no longer accept him as lord but would continue to keep the fief as his own demesne or take it to another lord who might accept him as vassal. Because the lord often regarded defiance as rebellion, defiant vassals had to have strong support or be prepared for a war they might lose.
Royal Authority Monarchs during the feudal period had other sources of authority besides their feudal suzerainty. The renaissance of classical learning included the revival of Roman law, with its traditions of powerful rulers and territorial government. The church looked on rulers as divinely ordained and by its anointment gave them a sacred character. The resurgence of trade and industry brought into being towns and a powerful urban class that looked to princes to maintain the freedom and order required for business activities. These townspeople also demanded a role in government commensurate with their wealth. In Italy they organized communes that won control of the countryside from the feudal nobles and even forced them to live in some of the cities. North of the Alps the townspeople sent representatives to the monarchs' councils and developed parliamentary institutions to give them a voice in government equal to that of the feudality. With the taxes from the towns, the princes were able to hire civil servants and professional troops. Thus, they were able both to impose their will on the feudality and to make themselves largely independent of the service of their vassals.
Decline During the 13th century feudalism reached the zenith of development and also began to decline. Subinfeudation had reached the point where superior lords had difficulty obtaining the service to which they were entitled. Vassals typically preferred to give money paymentscalled scutage, or shield moneyinstead of personal military service to their lords, and the lords themselves tended to prefer the money because it enabled them to hire professional troops that were often better trained and disciplined than the vassals. Moreover, a revival of infantry tactics and the introduction of new weapons, such as the longbow and the pike, made cavalry tactics less certain of victory. In the 14th and 15th centuries the decline of feudalism accelerated. During the Hundred Years' War, the chivalry of France and England fought bravely and gloriously, but the battles were largely won by professional menatarms and especially by the archers on foot. The professionals fought in companies whose leaders took oaths of homage and fealty to a prince, but under contracts that were not hereditary and usually for a term of months or years. This "bastard feudalism" was but a step away from purely mercenary fighting, and in Italy the Renaissance condottieri, some of whom were Englishmen trained in transalpine war, had indeed made that transition.
Role in Political Development The fief was embedded in the customary law of western Europe, and the incidents of feudalism, such as wardship and marriage, escheat and forfeiture, continued to flourish after feudal military service died out. In England feudal tenures were abolished by statute in 1660, but they lingered on in parts of the Continent until the customary law was replaced by Roman law, a process completed by Napoleon. Roman law substituted other legal notions for feudal ones on the Continent, but in England the common law continued to be basically feudal law. Wherever English people settled in the modern era, they took their common law with them and thus established feudal principles all over the world. English constitutionalism is fundamentally feudal, based on the contract theory of government. When John Locke wrote his treatises on government in the 17th century, he was seeking to generalize for all persons the feudal contract that limited the rights of the suzerain over his vassals and retained for them the German warrior's independence. The U.S. Declaration of Independence was a classic act of feudal defiance, as the Continental Congress enumerated the tyrannical acts of the king and declared the colonists no longer bound by their allegiance to him. Nineteenthcentury liberalism and 20thcentury libertarianism owe their basic premises to feudalism. In sum, feudal ideas were important to the political development of Western civilization, reconciling authority with liberty by way of contract.
Contributed by: Fred A. Cazel, Jr.
Reviewed by: Nancy F. Partner Further Reading