The following text is copied from the Medieval Sourcebook introduction to feudalism.


The usefulness of feudalism as a term is at present under intense discussion among historians of the middle ages, with the majority of experts now rejecting the term.

Feudalism was not a word used in the middle ages. It has had two quite distinct meanings in recent usage. The first meaning - promoted by radicals during the French Revolution and developped by Marxist historians - refers to a social system based on a society in which peasant agriculture is the fundamental productive activity; in which slavery is non-existent or marginal but peasants are tied to the land in some way; and in which a small elite defined by military activity dominates.. This is probably the most important meaning in modern popular usuage.

For most of the 20th-century, professional medievalists have given the term a quite different meaning [see F. Ganshof, Feudalism for a classic summary]. For medieval historians the term has come to mean a system of reciprocal personal relations among members of the military elite, which lead ultimately to parliament and then Western democracy. For modern historians, the older "Lord and peasant" model was subsumed in the concept of manoralism. It is not clear if this near consensus among Medievalists ever really made it on to the larger stage of common culture, or even to other departments within a university (or even to non-medievalists within a history department)!

Building on work of Elizabeth Brown, the historian Susan Reynolds, in her Fiefs and Vassals, systematically attacked the basis of the professional medievalists' version of feudalism [although she did not tackle the older social and economic, or Marxist, model]. Reynolds argued that recent historians had been too ready to read back 11th- and 12th-century legal texts (which do use feudal) terminology onto a much more variated 9th- and 10th century society and had ended up creating a "feudal world" which simply did note exist, or which, at most, described small parts of France for short periods.

Most reviewers have found Reynold's arguments compelling. [See, for instance, the very informative comments of Steven Lane: Review of Susan Reynolds, Fief and Vassals, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994) in BMMR 95:12.1]. As a result teachers can no longer teach "feudalism" without severe qualifications.

The texts here have traditionally been used to explain the "feudal system". They may be better read and discussed, perhaps, as examples of how people created a variety a social and personal bonds in a society with few stable and accessible legal or governmental authorities. They do not represent a "system".