Feudalism, also called feudal system or feudality, French féodalité, historiographic construct designating the social, economic, and political conditions in western Europe during the early Middle Ages, the long stretch of time between the 5th and 12th centuries. Feudalism and the related term feudal system are labels invented long after the period to which they were applied. They refer to what those who invented them perceived as the most significant and distinctive characteristics of the early and central Middle Ages. The expressions féodalité and feudal system were coined by the beginning of the 17th century, and the English words feudality and feudalism (as well as feudal pyramid) were in use by the end of the 18th century. They were derived from the Latin words feudum ("fief") and feodalitas (services connected with the fief), both of which were used during the Middle Ages and later to refer to a form of property holding. Use of the terms associated with feudum to denote the essential characteristics of the early Middle Ages has invested the fief with exaggerated prominence and placed undue emphasis on the importance of a special mode of land tenure to the detriment of other, more significant aspects of social, economic, and political life.
The feudal states were not contiguous but rather were scattered at strategic locations surrounded by potentially dangerous and hostile lands....
The terms feudalism and feudal system enabled historians to deal summarily with a long span of European history whose complexities were--and remain--confusing. The Roman Empire and the various emperors' accomplishments provided a key to understanding Roman history, and the reemergence of states and strong rulers in the 12th century again furnished manageable focal points for historical narrative, particularly since medieval states and governmental practices can be presented as antecedents of modern nations and institutions. The feudal construct neatly filled the gap between the 5th and the 12th century. Although Charlemagne may seem an anomaly in this evolution, he was presented as "sowing the seeds" from which feudalism emerged. A variety of Roman, barbarian, and Carolingian institutions were considered antecedents of feudal practices: Roman lordship and clientage, barbarian war chiefdoms and bands, grants of lands to soldiers and to officeholders, and oaths of loyalty and fidelity. In the 17th century, as later, the high point of feudalism was located in the 11th century. Later rulers who adopted and adapted feudal institutions to increase their power were labeled "feudal" and their governments called "feudal monarchies." Despite the survival of institutions and practices associated with the medieval feudal system in the 17th century, historians of that time presented medieval feudalism and the feudal system as declining in importance in the 14th and 15th centuries. This period was later dubbed an age of "bastard feudalism" because of the use of salaries and written contracts between lords and dependents.
Those who formulated the concept of feudalism were affected by the search for simplicity and order in the universe associated with the work of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) and especially Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Historians and philosophers were persuaded that if the universe operated systematically, so too must societies. In the 16th century some students of the law and customs of the fief declared that feudal institutions were universal and maintained that feudal systems had existed in Rome, Persia, and Judaea. The philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) considered the fief one of humankind's eternal institutions. Adopting a similar position, Voltaire (1694-1778) contested the judgment of Montesquieu (1689-1755) that the appearance of feudal laws was a unique historical event. The philosophical historians of 18th-century Scotland searched for feudalism outside western Europe, and they expanded the construct's field of significance to encompass peasants as well as lords. Adam Smith (1723-90) presented feudal government as a stage of social development characterized by the absence of commerce and by the use of semi-free labour to cultivate land. Smith's student John Millar (1735-1801) found "the outlines of the feudal policy" in Asia and Africa. The association popularly made between the feudal construct and ignorance and barbarism fostered its extension to regions which Europeans scarcely knew and which they considered backward and primitive.
Following Millar's precedent, some later historians continued to look for feudal institutions in times and places outside medieval Europe, most notably Japan. These efforts, predictably, resulted in misconceptions and misunderstanding. Historians using the feudal model for comparative purposes emphasized those characteristics which resemble or seem to resemble Western feudal practices and neglected other, dissimilar aspects, some of which were uniquely significant in shaping the evolution of the areas in question. For Westerners, the use of the feudal model necessarily created a deceptive sense of familiarity with societies that are different from their own.
Feudalism was a combination of legal and military customs in medieval Europe that flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries. Broadly defined, it was a way of structuring society around relationships derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labour. Although derived from the Latin word feodum or feudum (fief), then in use, the term feudalism and the system it describes were not conceived of as a formal political system by the people living in the Middle Ages. In its classic definition, by François-Louis Ganshof (1944), feudalism describes a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs.A broader definition of feudalism, as described by Marc Bloch (1939), includes not only the obligations of the warrior nobility but also those of all three estates of the realm: the nobility, the clergy, and the peasantry bound by manorialism; this is sometimes referred to as a "feudal society". Since the publication of Elizabeth A. R. Brown's "The Tyranny of a Construct" (1974) and Susan Reynolds's Fiefs and Vassals (1994), there has been ongoing inconclusive discussion among medieval historians as to whether feudalism is a useful construct for understanding medieval society.