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(fyo͞o`dəlĭzəm), form of political and social organization typical of Western Europe from the dissolution of Charlemagne's empire to the rise of the absolute monarchies. The term feudalism is derived from the Latin feodum, for "fief," and ultimately from a Germanic word meaning "cow," generalized to denote valuable movable property. Although analogous social systems have appeared in other civilizations, the feudalism of Europe in the Middle Ages remains the common model of feudal society.

Characteristics of European Feudalism

The evolution of highly diverse forms, customs, and institutions makes it almost impossible to accurately depict feudalism as a whole, but certain components of the system may be regarded as characteristic: strict division into social classes, i.e., nobility, clergy, peasantry, and, in the later Middle Ages, burgesses; private jurisdiction based on local custom; and the landholding system dependent upon the fief or fee. Feudalism was based on contracts made among nobles, and although it was intricately connected with the manorial systemmanorial system
or seignorial system
, economic and social system of medieval Europe under which peasants' land tenure and production were regulated, and local justice and taxation were administered.
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, it must be considered as distinct from it. Although some men held their land in alodalod
. In feudal tenure, lands held without obligation to any suzerain (overlord) were termed held in alod. Alodial lands existed in England and on the Continent. They became less common as landowners sought protection by turning their lands over to more powerful lords and
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, without obligation to any person, they were exceptions to the rule in the Middle Ages.

In an ideal feudal society (a legal fiction, most nearly realized in the Crusaders' Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem), the ownership of all land was vested in the king. Beneath him was a hierarchy of nobles, the most important nobles holding land directly from the king, and the lesser from them, down to the seigneur who held a single manor. The political economy of the system was local and agricultural, and at its base was the manorial system. Under the manorial system the peasants, laborers, or serfsserf,
under feudalism, peasant laborer who can be generally characterized as hereditarily attached to the manor in a state of semibondage, performing the servile duties of the lord (see also manorial system).
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, held the land they worked from the seigneur, who granted them use of the land and his protection in return for personal services (especially on the demesne, the land he retained for his own use) and for dues (especially payment in kind).

The Fief

The feudal method of holding land was by fief; the grantor of the fief was the suzerain, or overlord, and the recipient was the vassal. The fief was formally acquired following the ceremony of homage, in which the vassal, kneeling before the overlord, put his hands in those of the lord and declared himself his man, and the overlord bound himself by kissing the vassal and raising him to his feet. The vassal then swore an oath of fealty, vowing to be faithful to the overlord and to perform the acts and services due him. This formal procedure served to cement the personal relationship between lord and vassal; after the ceremony the lord invested the vassal with the fief, usually by giving him some symbol of the transferred land. Honors or rights, as well as land, could be granted as fiefs. Gradually the system of subinfeudation evolved, by which the vassal might in his turn become an overlord, granting part of his fief to one who then became vassal to him. Thus very complex relationships, based on fiefs, developed among the nobles, and the personal ties between overlords and vassals were weakened. Originally the fief had to be renewed on the death of either party. With the advent of hereditary succession and primogenitureprimogeniture,
in law, the rule of inheritance whereby land descends to the oldest son. Under the feudal system of medieval Europe, primogeniture generally governed the inheritance of land held in military tenure (see feudalism; knight).
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, renewal of the fief by the heir of the deceased became customary, and little by little the fief became hereditary.

Military Service

The feudal system rested on the unsettled conditions of the times and thus on the need of the lord for armed warriors and the need of the vassal for protection. The nobility was essentially a military class, with the knightknight,
in ancient and medieval history, a noble who did military service as a mounted warrior. The Knight in Ancient History

In ancient history, as in Athens and Rome, the knight was a noble of the second class who in military service had to furnish his own mount
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 as the typical warrior. Since equipping mounted fighters was expensive, the lord could not create his armed force without the obligation of the vassal to supply a stipulated number of armed men, a number that varied from the service of the vassal himself to the service of hundreds in private armies. The gradations of nobility were, therefore, based on both military service and landholding. At the bottom of the social scale was the squire, originally the servant of the knight. Above the knight were classes that varied in different countries—counts, dukes, earls, barons, and other nobles. The vassal owed, in addition to military service, other dues and services that varied with local custom and tended to become fixed. The obligation of the overlord in the feudal contract was always the protection of the vassal.

History of Feudalism in Europe


The feudal system first appears in definite form in the Frankish lands in the 9th and 10th cent. A long dispute between scholars as to whether its institutional basis was Roman or Germanic remains somewhat inconclusive; it can safely be said that feudalism emerged from the condition of society arising from the disintegration of Roman institutions and the further disruption of Germanic inroads and settlements. Of course, the rise of feudalism in areas formerly dominated by Roman institutions meant the breakdown of central government; but in regions untouched by Roman customs the feudal system was a further step toward organization and centralization.

The system used and altered institutions then in existence. Important in an economic sense was the Roman villa, with the peculiar form of rental, the precarium, a temporary grant of land that the grantor could revoke at any time. Increasingly, the poor landholder transferred his land to a protector and received it back as a precarium, thus giving rise to the manorial system. It was also possible for the manorial system to develop from the Germanic village, as in England.

The development of fiefs was also influenced by the Roman institution of patricinium and the German institution of mundium, by which the powerful surrounded themselves with men who rendered them service, especially military service, in exchange for protection. More and more, this service-and-protection contract came to involve the granting of a beneficium, the use of land, which tended to become hereditary. Local royal officers and great landholders increased their power and forced the king to grant them rights of private justice and immunity from royal interference. By these processes feudalism became fixed in Frankish lands by the end of the 10th cent.

The church also had great influence in shaping feudalism; although the organization of the church was not feudal in character, its hierarchy somewhat paralleled the feudal hierarchy. The church owned much land, held by monasteries, by church dignitaries, and by the churches themselves. Most of this land, given by nobles as a bequest or gift, carried feudal obligations; thus clerical land, like lay land, assumed a feudal aspect, and the clergy became participants in the temporal feudal system. Many bishops and abbots were much like lay seigneurs. This feudal connection between church and state gave rise to the controversy over lay investitureinvestiture,
in feudalism, ceremony by which an overlord transferred a fief to a vassal or by which, in ecclesiastical law, an elected cleric received the pastoral ring and staff (the symbols of spiritual office) signifying the transfer of the office.
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Feudalism spread from France to Spain, Italy, and later Germany and Eastern Europe. In England the Frankish form was imposed by William I (William the Conqueror) after 1066, although most of the elements of feudalism were already present. It was extended eastward into Slavic lands to the marches (frontier provinces), which were continually battered by new invasions, and it was adopted partially in Scandinavian countries. The important features of feudalism were similar throughout, but there existed definite national differences. Feudalism continued in all parts of Europe until the end of the 14th cent.


The concentration of power in the hands of a few was always a great disruptive force in the feudal system. The rise of powerful monarchs in France, Spain, and England broke down the local organization. Another disruptive force was the increase of communication, which broke down the isolated manor, assisted the rise of towns, and facilitated the emergence of the burgess class. This process was greatly accelerated in the 14th cent. and did much to destroy the feudal classifications of society.

The system broke down gradually. It was not completely destroyed in France until the French Revolution (1789), and it persisted in Germany until 1848 and in Russia until 1917. Many relics of feudalism still persist, and its influence remains on the institutions of Western Europe.

Other Feudal Systems

Other ages and other lands have seen the development of feudal institutions. In Japan the feudal system was well ordered before the 10th cent., and it persisted with modifications until the 19th cent. (see bushidobushido
[Jap.,=way of the warrior], code of honor and conduct of the Japanese nobility. Of ancient origin, it grew out of the old feudal bond that required unwavering loyalty on the part of the vassal. It borrowed heavily from Zen Buddhism and Confucianism.
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; daimyodaimyo
[Jap.,=great name], the great feudal landholders of Japan, the territorial barons as distinguished from the kuge, or court nobles. Great tax-free estates were built up from the 8th cent.
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). In other areas, as in China, where feudal practices were in existence by 1100 B.C., society became feudalistic but not precisely feudal. Feudalism in India and in the Saracen and Ottoman civilizations was in many ways analogous to Western feudalism, but it proved less durable than its European counterpart. The existence of feudalism in several civilizations has given rise to theories of feudalism as a necessary and inevitable stage of political development. Some scholars, however, consider the European feudal system a unique phenomenon.


See F. Pollock and F. W. Maitland, The History of English Law (2d ed. 1898, repr. 1968); R. W. Carlyle and A. J. Carlyle, A History of Medieval Political Theory in the West (6 vol., 1903–36; repr. 1962); H. Pirenne, Medieval Cities (tr. 1925, repr. 1969); J. W. Thompson, Feudal Germany (1927; repr., 2 vol., 1962); C. Stephenson, Mediaeval Feudalism (1942, repr. 1956); A. L. Poole, Obligations of Society in the XII and XIII Centuries (1946, repr. 1960); R. Coulborn, ed., Feudalism in History (1956, repr. 1965); F. L. Ganshof, Feudalism (3d Eng. ed. 1964); D. Herlihy, ed., The History of Feudalism (1970); J. R. Strayer, Feudalism (1979).



a class-antagonistic formation; in world historical development, the stage following the slaveholding system and preceding capitalism. In the history of many peoples feudalism was the first class-antagonistic formation, directly succeeding the primitive communal system.

Despite the many historical and regional variants of feudalism and despite the differences in its various stages, production relations under feudalism had a number of features in common. First, the basic means of production—land—was the monopoly of the ruling class of feudal lords. Under feudal ownership, landed property belonged to the feudal hierarchy as a whole or, ultimately, to the state. Moreover, landownership was inseparably linked to authority over the direct producers—the peasants—since land itself was of no value to a feudal lord without the laborer who cultivated it. The laborer was the basic, decisive element in the productive forces of that period.

Second, the peasant maintained an independent farm on the holding that was formally “granted” to him by the lord but that was actually for the hereditary use of the peasant family that cultivated it. Such a family owned its tools, draft animals, and other movable property, but did not have the right to own land. The feudal property relations gave rise to the lord’s “right” to appropriate without compensation the surplus product of his peasants’ labor—that is, the right to collect feudal land rent, either as corvée or as quitrent in kind or in money.

Thus, the feudal mode of production was based on a combination of the large landholdings of the feudal lords and the small individual farms of the direct producers, the peasants, who were exploited by extraeconomic constraint, as characteristic of feudalism as economic exploitation is of capitalism. Since the peasant functioned as the owner of his land allotment, extraeconomic constraints ranging from serfdom to mere social inequality were necessary to enable the feudal lord to collect his land rent, and the independent farm was necessary to enable the peasant to produce it. This form of subordination and exploitation of the direct producers, unique to feudalism, enabled the peasant family farm, which was best suited to the level of productive forces achieved at that time, to function as the basis of social production as a whole. The relative economic independence of the peasant in the age of feudalism, compared to the status of the slave in slaveholding societies, permitted an increase in the productivity of peasant labor and the growth of society’s productive forces. In the final analysis, this is what determined the historically progressive nature of feudalism, compared to the slaveholding and primitive communal systems.

Under feudalism, a social system with a predominantly agrarian, subsistence economy and small-scale individual production, agricultural technology developed slowly and tradition and custom played an important role. The feudal mode of production determined the social structure of feudal society (class stratification, hierarchy, the corporative system), society’s political superstructure (public power as an attribute of landownership) and ideology (predominantly religious), and the sociopsychological makeup of the individual (communal consciousness, traditional attitudes).

An essential feature of the Middle Ages, feudalism as an era in world history lasted from the end of the fifth century to the middle of the 17th. Although in most parts of the world, feudal relations not only survived but continued to predominate in the succeeding epoch, the character of the new period was increasingly determined not by feudal relations but by the emerging and spreading capitalist relations.

Among all peoples feudalism developed in three stages: incipient, mature, and late feudalism. The chronological boundaries of these stages vary for different regions and countries.

Feudalism in Europe, INCIPIENT FEUDALISM. West European feudalism arose out of the ruins of the Western Roman Empire, which had been conquered by barbarians, chiefly Germanic tribes of Franks, Visigoths, Burgundians, and Lombards, during the Great Migration of Peoples. In this area feudalism arose between the end of the fifth century and the 11th century. In bourgeois historiography three main trends, dating from the 18th century, have developed to explain the origin of feudalism. The Romanists trace the basic features of feudalism to the social, legal, and political institutions of the late Roman Empire. The Germanists believe that feudalism resulted from the triumph of Germanic institutions in the social and political organization of medieval society. A third group of historians views the process of feudalization as a synthesis, by which they mean a mechanical combination of classical and barbarian customs. Most contemporary Western historians subscribe to the concept of continuity, to the idea that feudal society was formed through a slow but continuous evolution of Roman or Germanic (or both) principles.

While acknowledging the presence of “protofeudal” elements both in the structure of late Roman society (the colonatus and the patrocinium, or political power of large landowners over the population) and in the social structure of barbarian, particularly Germanic, tribes (retainer relations, various forms of dependence), Marxist historiography views the transition from prefeudal formations to feudalism as a revolutionary process. In the Western Roman Empire, this process took the form of a synthesis of the disintegrating late classical slaveholding relations and Germanic primitive communal relations, leading to the creation of a qualitatively new system.

Despite their local variations, the ethnopolitical communities that emerged in the Western Roman Empire after the barbarian conquest had several features in common. After establishing their military supremacy in a given area, the conquering tribes would proceed to set up states, barbarian kingdoms that in time acquired the form of early feudal monarchies. Most of the subjugated local inhabitants were relegated to a subordinate position and forced to pay taxes and perform services. The vast territorial conquests of the barbarians and the division of these lands among them hastened the transformation of the Germanic tribal aristocracy, which had existed before the invasions, into a landowning elite. The Germanic kings distributed the captured Roman lands to their retainers, who acquired entire Roman estates worked by slaves and coloni. The barbarian societies thus became slaveholding ones.

The decisive factor in the evolution of the barbarian societies toward feudalism, however, was the disintegration of the rural commune, an association of free and equal farmers. (Farming and cattle raising had become the principal occupations of the Germanic tribes long before their conquest of the Western Roman Empire.) After the barbarian conquests, although the commune continued to exist, the peasant family farm became the basic unit of production in most parts of Western Europe. This led to the emergence of the fully developed alodium, or freely transferable holding. The ascendancy of the individual family farm as the basis of social production was the fundamental socioeconomic prerequisite for the rise of feudalism. The appearance of the fully developed alodium accelerated property differentiation among commune members. State obligations (judicial, fiscal, military) had the same effect on the rural commune. Therefore, under the new conditions the legal equality of the commune member was itself a contributing factor in his ruin. The tyranny of more powerful neighbors, transformed by royal land grants into large landowners eager to increase their holdings at the expense of neighboring communes, also played a major role in this process.

The form and intensity of the feudalization process varied from one region to another. In some cases, the commune member “voluntarily” became the “man” of a particular lord and assumed the obligation of “serving” him, a relationship known as commendation. In other cases, he was forced into bondage. Frequently, impoverished communal farmers would receive land allotments from a large landowner in return for performing obligations. Threatened with ruin, a commune member might transfer his allotment to the landowner and regain it as a “holding,” again on condition that he perform onerous obligations. One of the most widespread forms of such land tenure was the precarium (seePRECARIUM).

The two forms of dependence—land and personal—eventually merged. By giving their servitors the right to collect state revenues from certain lands or by entrusting the great lords with the performance of state functions (seeIMMUNITY) in their districts, the Germanic kings hastened the gradual transformation of certain areas into private patrimonies and the farmers on them into dependents of the patrimony holders. Rather than separating the peasant from his allotment, the process of feudalization had the effect of legally binding him to the soil in one way or another. In the course of feudalization the peasant allotment became dependent, unfree, and burdened with obligations to the lord, who became the ultimate owner of the allotment and the peasant’s seignior. This decisive aspect of the agrarian revolution that occurred in the Frankish state in the eighth and ninth centuries marked the shift in Western Europe from a barbarian to an early feudal society.

A second aspect of the agrarian revolution was the formation of a ruling class structure that ensured the subjugation of the other classes. One practice that promoted the rise of a ruling class was the bestowal of conditional holdings known as benefices, usually in return for military service. Concurrently, Western Europe saw the spread of vassalage, a personal contractual bond that obliged the vassal to render to his lord certain honorable services (usually military) compatible with both parties’ membership in the ruling class. Gradually it became customary for the recipient of a benefice to declare himself a vassal and for a vassal to receive a grant of land. The process of feudalization thus resulted in the formation of two main antagonistic classes: the masses of formerly free communal farmers, who merged with the slaves, coloni, and semifree peasantry to form a single class of enserfed peasants; and a rising military class unified by the feudal hierarchy.

The political superstructure of incipient feudalism was characterized by outwardly centralized, sometimes vast states (such as Charlemagne’s empire) that were nonetheless essentially amorphous and that disintegrated easily for lack of strong internal economic and ethnic bonds. The process of feudalization engendered acute social conflicts, both between the dependent layers of the population and their masters and between the free but increasingly dependent commune members, on the one hand, and the landed barons and royal administrators on the other. These conflicts often took the form of large uprisings in which the participants called for return to the ancient communal system.

In the sphere of ideology, feudalization was accompanied by the spread of Christianity, which came to replace paganism throughout Europe. The Christian religion gave ideological sanction to the feudal order and legal system. Thus, the social protest of the oppressed often took the form of adherence to paganism and heretical movements.

In Western Europe early feudalism showed significant regional differences. Several types of early feudalism may be distinguished on the European continent. The first was a “balanced” synthesis of feudal elements that had matured within the slave-holding formation and protofeudal relations that had appeared in the disintegrating primitive communal system. The classic example of this type of early feudalism was the Frankish state, particularly its northern parts. The second type—a synthesis with a clear preponderance of late classical elements—occurred in the Mediterranean region (Italy, southern France, and Spain) after its conquest by the Visigoths. (Outside Western Europe, a variation of this type of early feudalism developed in Byzantium, where feudalism’s origin in the slaveholding system was clearly discernible because the strong slaveholding state was not destroyed but only gradually transformed between the seventh and 11th centuries into an early feudal one, leaving its cities intact.) The third type of early feudalism was not a synthesis, or at best the elements of synthesis were negligible. Feudalism in this case arose from the disintegration of the clantribal system of the barbarians, bypassing the slaveholding stage of social development. Wherever this occurred—in northwestern Germany, in the Scandinavian countries, and outside Western Europe in Hungary and on the territory of the Eastern and Western Slavs—feudalization was a long and drawn-out process.

MATURE FEUDALISM. The feudalization of the base and of all elements of the superstructure of European society was completed between the 11th and 15th centuries. The basic institutions (large-scale feudal landownership, the seignorial system) and the main classes of feudal society were fully developed by this time. The patrimony (service estate, seigniory, manor) was the primary form of agricultural organization and the determining factor in agricultural production and the collection of feudal rent from the peasant farm. The seignior had direct authority over the peasants living on the patrimony, who were dependent on him both economically and personally.

There were various forms of patrimony. The “classic” patrimony was a compact area divided into two parts: the lord’s land (domain) and the allotments (holdings) of the peasants. Usually a peasant commune would continue to function on the patrimony subject to the authority of the lord. The lord’s fields, often intermingled with those of the peasants, made up approximately one-third of the patrimony’s arable land. The lord’s domain was farmed chiefly with corvée labor, the peasants supplying their own tools. Some of the farm work was done by manor servants using the lord’s implements. The power of the patrimonial lord extended to such diverse aspects of the peasants’ private and family life as the order of inheritance of the peasant allotment, the marketing of products from the peasant farm, marriage, and travel outside the patrimony. At this stage of feudalism, much of the peasantry, including the serfs in France and Italy and the villeins in England, was subjected to harsh forms of dependence.

The period of mature feudalism witnessed the transformation of the benefice into a hereditary privileged holding known as a fief (which still retained, however, the conditional service character of the benefice) and the formation of the vassal-fief hierarchical structure of the ruling class of feudal lords. The full transition from alodial to feudal landownership coincided, in the political sphere, with the onset of feudal disintegration.

The most important features of the agrarian and sociopolitical structure of mature Western European feudalism were as follows: (1) the dominance of large-scale landownership of the private patrimonial type and the absence or relative weakness of state landownership; (2) the large preponderance among the direct producers of small private peasant landholders, independent farmers who were bound in varying degrees and ways to the seignior, and consequently the primarily private (seignorial) nature of the exploitation of the peasantry by private means of extraeconomic constraint; (3) the link between large landholdings and various forms of political power exercised by means of private legal relations such as patrimonial courts, police, and immunity; and (4) the vassal-fief hierarchical structure of the ruling class of feudal lords and, based on this structure, the system of feudal levies (later, detachments of knights) as the main form of military organization.

These features were most prominent in the northwest, the area encompassing northern France, western Germany, and to a certain extent England. There, particularly in northeastern France, feudalism reached its peak of development. Because of the prominence in this area of such political and legal institutions as the fief (from whose Latin form, feodum, the name for the entire system is derived), conditional landownership, the vassal-fief system, and the feudal hierarchy, many bourgeois historians have come to regard these features as the distinguishing traits of feudalism, thus denying the existence of feudalism in areas both within and outside Europe where these elements were weak or absent.

In other parts of Europe the feudal system had a number of features closely related to the specific local circumstances accompanying its origin, including geographical conditions. Thus, in the Mediterranean region the feudal social structure was typically somewhat incomplete: the exploitation of the peasantry was often relatively mild, a significant number of peasants owned their land outright, feudal patrimonies were relatively small, and the feudal hierarchy was not precisely delineated. Moreover, cities and urban life flowered early in this region. In the Scandinavian countries, the privately owned domain and the corvée system of exploitation of the peasantry were poorly developed; most of the land was owned by peasants who were free and equal members of society; state service long remained the leading form of feudal exploitation of the peasantry; urbanization was a weak and tardy development; and patriarchal and communal bonds retained their vitality.

The evolution of mature feudalism was also governed by several new factors: the growth of productive forces and peasant labor productivity, the development of towns and commodity-money relations, and the characteristics of state centralization.

In its mature period, feudalism as a formation realized its full potential for historical progress, primarily through the increase of labor productivity on peasant farms. The growth in the productive forces of feudal society manifested itself primarily in the considerable expansion of cultivated land (internal colonization), the spread of the three-field system, improvements in tilling, higher yields, and the spread of industrial crops, wine-making, fruit growing, and vegetable cultivation. The progress made by the productive forces caused a further division of labor, the separation of crafts from farming. In the 11th and 12th centuries cities grew rapidly as centers of crafts and trade.

The development of the feudal city brought about important structural changes in medieval society. Although the organization of urban handicraft production retained its feudal character, marked by small-scale production, a guild hierarchy, and a corporative system, property relations differed significantly from those that had evolved in agriculture. The artisan won the legal right to own his basic means of production—his tools and workshop—and the goods he produced. A new social stratum, townspeople, emerged and crystalized in the course of the towns’ struggle to liberate themselves from their feudal lords (seeCOMMUNAL MOVEMENT). In the course of this struggle the system of seignorial exploitation of urban handicraft production and trade was seriously undermined and in places entirely abolished, thereby ensuring maximum freedom, within the confines of the feudal system, for the development of simple commodity production. From the very beginning, urban handicraft production was directed toward the market.

As labor productivity on the peasant farm increased, the amount of surplus product also increased, with the peasant appropriating for himself that portion of the surplus product which was not taken in rent. The result, given the continuing domination of feudalism, was a gradual restructuring of the system of feudal exploitation for the purpose of increasing its revenues. In Western Europe the domain system, and together with it corvée, steadily gave way to the monetary quitrent, a development that depended on the peasant being able to sell his surplus on the market. Although the amount of quitrent was fixed, the payments extracted by the lord in connection with his seignorial jurisdiction and market rights increased rapidly. Serfdom and villeinage gradually disappeared. The peasant’s personal dependence weakened and his dependence on the lord for land increased. Economic constraints began to play an ever larger role. As monetary rent became more widespread and property differences among the peasants increased, growing numbers of land-poor peasants were obliged to hire themselves out as laborers.

The restructuring of the entire system of feudal exploitation that took place in Western Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries signaled the end of the seignorial stage of feudalism and a transition to a higher stage of feudal development. The peasant farm became virtually the sole source of feudal rent, an indirect indication of the economic superiority of the small parceled peasant farm over the domain farm. The new stage in the development of feudalism in the 14th and 15th centuries coincided with a new phase in the class struggle of the peasantry. Along with the ordinary local forms of peasant protest, which between the 11th and the 13th centuries rarely went beyond the boundaries of a particular patrimony, mass peasant uprisings were now taking place: the Dolcino Uprising in Italy from 1304 to 1307, the Jacquerie in France in 1358, Wat Tyler’s rebellion in England in 1381, and the Hussite wars in Bohemia in the first half of the 15th century. The peasant struggle against feudalism in the 14th and 15th centuries were historically significant in that it helped replace the domain with the peasant farm in Western Europe and made possible the creation of parceled peasant landholdings, usually disguised by feudal trappings.

The period of mature feudalism also saw internal structural changes in the class of feudal lords. Between the 11th and 13th centuries the ruling class consolidated itself, forming legally privileged estates. A hereditary stratum of knights was formed, from which the nobility later evolved. The higher and middle clergy, also feudal lords, constituted another ruling estate. The third estate, which nominally included all commoners but which in practice was represented in assemblies by the burghers, bore the stamp of inequality and oppression. The great majority of the members of this class, known as the people of the seigniory because they were mostly peasants subject to a lord, stood outside the publicly recognized estate system. The ruling class of feudal lords, monolithic in relation to the commoners, was actually highly heterogeneous. The elite of the nobility, comprising dukes, counts, and prelates (bishops and abbots of large monasteries), were suzerains with large numbers of vassals and lords of dozens and even hundreds of patrimonies. At the other end of the feudal hierarchy was the mass of minor lords whose basic income consisted of the rent from a relatively small number of dependent peasants and whose jurisdiction was limited to the area of a small patrimony.

To the extent that agricultural production was channeled into the marketplace, land became a commodity. Fiefs were broken up, resulting in the destruction of vassal-fief bonds. Inasmuch as economic links in this period transcended the boundaries not only of seigniories (patrimonies, service estates) but also of provinces, national markets emerged, and opportunities arose for the feudal states to centralize their political control. The centralized feudal state took the form of an estate monarchy because without representation the feudal estates, chiefly the burghers, could not be compelled to pay for the growing apparatus of centralized power. The estate monarchy also grew out of the ruling class’s need for centralized means of putting down the rebellions of the oppressed.

Finally, at this stage of feudalism the finishing touches were given to the feudal superstructure in the area of ideology and culture. The Catholic Church attained virtually absolute ideological supremacy. Its teachings, as elaborated by the scholastic theologians of the 12th and 13th centuries, notably Thomas Aquinas, became the ultimate and universal expression of the feudal world outlook. Nonetheless, there were harbingers of the destruction of the church’s ideological monopoly. The demands of urban life engendered new ways of perceiving reality: through experiment instead of speculation, through critical and rational inquiry rather than blind faith in authority. Secular schools and universities were founded, and the spread of rationalistic and pantheistic philosophies undermined the official church dogma. The growth of ideological opposition was reflected in the spread of heresies, which often became rallying points for the antifeudal class struggle of the masses. Within the new centralized states feudal peoples were consolidating themselves into the future nations of Europe. National languages were developing, and literatures in these languages were being created.

LATE FEUDALISM. The last stage of feudalism was characterized by the disintegration of the feudal formation and the genesis within it of the capitalist mode of production. In Western Europe, as early as the period of mature feudalism, the spread of simple commodity production and the resulting profound changes in all spheres of production and in the forms of feudal exploitation and dependence had created some of the prerequisites for the appearance of elements of a new, capitalist formation. The restructuring of feudal agrarian relations and the liberation of the peasants from personal dependence on their lords in the 14th and 15th centuries had given rise to one of the important prerequisites for capitalist production: the personal freedom of the laborer. Another prerequisite was created in the course of the primitive accumulation of capital: the expropriation of land traditionally held by the peasants, although nowhere except in England was this process carried through to completion. Urbanization and the development of urban crafts, trade, and money-lending contributed to the accumulation of large amounts of capital by the leading burghers and the ruin of some artisans. Certain technological prerequisites for large-scale production also appeared.

All of these factors contributed to the emergence, in the midst of feudal society, of early forms of capitalist production, primarily in industry (seeCAPITALISM, MANUFACTURE). In agriculture, these same processes rendered production increasingly subservient to market demands, resulted in the replacement of custom-regulated relations by commercial ones, and led to the development of transitional forms of land leasing, the spread of hired labor, and the creation of a capitalist land rent.

Although feudalism continued to dominate, it was changing markedly. The seignorial forms of feudal rent, which had lost their value in the course of the price revolution, gradually gave way to exploitation by centralized forms of rent (state taxes), which were levied primarily on the peasantry. The nobility’s loss of its military monopoly and the reduction in seignorial revenues resulted in the collapse of the feudal hierarchy and in the “regrouping” of the nobility. Royal service became one of the most important sources of “noble livelihood” in the newly centralized state.

With rare exceptions, the political dominance of the feudal class during the decline of feudalism took the form of absolute monarchy. Absolutism varied greatly from one country to another. Its very emergence, however, was a symptom of the decline of feudalism and the resulting sharp increase in class conflict. The rise of absolutism also attested to the continuing dominance of feudal exploitative relations, since the feudal class retained its political supremacy.

The development of spiritual life in the late feudal period was equally contradictory. The Reformation dealt a blow to Catholicism’s unquestioned supremacy. The liberation of spiritual life from religious influence found expression in the secular culture of the Renaissance and in humanist ideology. The growth of productive forces stimulated new ways of thinking as well as manufacturing, and a science based on empirical knowledge emerged. Meanwhile, Catholicism launched a counterattack (seeCOUNTER-REFORMATION), and the ideological atmosphere created by late absolutism was hostile to humanism and other manifestations of early bourgeois ideology.

The late feudal period was one of acute class conflict, complicated by the addition to the social structure of two new classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. In countries where capitalist relations emerged early and developed irreversibly, destroying the feudal structure, the feudal formation collapsed during the triumphant bourgeois revolutions of the 16th to the 18th century. Such revolutions took place in the Netherlands, England, and France. In such European countries as Italy, Spain, and the western German principalities, the formation of capitalist relations began early but was retarded and even halted by seignorial reaction. The emergence of capitalist relations in these countries in the 16th to 18th centuries therefore proved to be partially “reversible.”

A prolonged feudal reaction, which took the legal form of a “second promulgation of serfdom,” triumphed in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The political expression of the feudal reaction was a powerful dictatorship of the nobility—the political hegemony of the magnates and gentry in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and tsarist autocracy in Russia. In the countries that experienced a second promulgation of serfdom, feudalism stagnated, giving way only gradually to embryonic forms of capitalist relations. Under the “protection” of feudalism, capitalist relations developed through an agonizing (for the peasantry) restructuring of the landlord economy on the basis of servile, semiserf forms of wage labor, known as the Prussian path to the development of capitalism in agriculture. In industry, wage labor was long combined with forced labor. The late feudal period in Central and Eastern Europe lasted until the middle, and in places through the second half, of the 19th century. Significant vestiges of feudalism survived even longer, particularly in agrarian relations and the political superstructure.

Feudalism in the East. Depending on the form and rate of feudalization, three main groups of countries may be distinguished in the East: (1) the ancient cradles of civilization: Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran, India, and China; (2) other agricultural civilizations that began forming classes and states in the early centuries of the Common Era: Korea, Japan, the countries of Southeast Asia, and Ethiopia; and (3) certain predominantly nomadic peoples who long retained their primitive communal system, reaching the stage of social stratification only between circa A.D. 500 and the beginning of the second millennium: certain Arabic, Turkic, and Mongolian tribes. Whereas in the first group of countries feudalism replaced a fully developed class society, slave-holding tendencies fairly quickly gave way to feudalism among the agricultural and nomadic peoples who reached the stage of social stratification relatively late. Nevertheless, the prolonged existence of an entrenched slaveholding system within the confines of a feudal society was characteristic of the entire East.

Feudal relations, notably large-scale landownership and the widespread leasing of land, apparently emerged much earlier in such countries as China and India than in Europe. However, the process of feudalization was long and drawn out in these countries, lasting from about the beginning of the Common Era (sometimes a few centuries earlier) to the end of the first millennium A.D or the beginning of the second. Economic changes attesting to a transition from a slaveholding to a feudal formation coincided in both China and India with “barbarian” invasions and were accompanied by major ideological shifts: the spread of Buddhism, and fundamental changes in the traditional ideological systems of Hinduism, Confucianism, and Taoism. In the Near East, the beginnings of feudalism date from the emergence of Islam and the Arab conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries.

The existence of strong centralized monarchies is typical of the early feudal period in the East. Because of the strength of the commune, the ruling class in such early feudal empires as the Arab Caliphate and the T’ang Empire in China was at first unable to gain hereditary possession of most of the arable land and to relegate the peasants to a position of direct dependence. A major form of exploitation of the peasantry was the collection of rents and taxes through the state bureaucracy. By the end of the first millennium, however, the growth of private property in land and the acute class struggles in the early feudal societies of the East had led to the victory of private feudal principles and to the triumph of political fragmentation over early feudal centralization (a short-lived triumph in ninth-century China and a more permanent one in the Near East and India).

In the Oriental countries that passed directly from a primitive communal system to a feudal one, the transition was facilitated by the economic, cultural, and particularly the religious and ideological influence of the more developed countries. Although the problem has not been sufficiently studied, there is reason to believe that in some of these countries slaveholding relations did in fact emerge and that only later was the slaveholding tendency superseded by a trend toward feudalism (Japan during the Nara period, the early Aksum Kingdom, certain Central Asian nomadic empires).

The leading countries of Asia and North Africa reached the stage of mature feudalism at almost the same time as the European countries, in the early centuries of the second millennium A.D. Three factors attest to the existence of fully developed feudalism: the general upsurge of commodity-money relations and the growth of cities in China, India, and the Near East; the expansion of private feudal landownership at the expense of “state” landholdings (that is, through the expropriation of peasant communes and through the conversion of conditional, temporary feudal holdings into hereditary estates); and the completion of the ideological superstructure of feudal society. Nonetheless, certain features peculiar to early feudalism persisted even in the more highly developed countries of Asia and North Africa. Throughout the Eastern Middle Ages, there were two conflicting, though related, trends, one toward state landownership and the other toward private feudal landownership. A steady growth of private feudal land at the expense of state-owned land is discernible despite the fluctuations of history, although in a number of countries the state retained much of its property in the mature feudal period.

One of the most important characteristics of the agricultural countries of the East was the distinctive organization of the class of feudal lords, who despite their large estates did not, as a rule, use the corvée system but collected rent from the peasants, primarily in kind. Moreover, private feudal exploitations typically involved a relatively small measure of extraeconomic constraint, usually social inequality, and the exploitative relations took the form of peasant “leases” of the landlord’s property. The Eastern countries also had a broad stratum of peasant “proprietors”—that is, holders of state land. Communal landownership and land tenure continued to exist in a number of regions. Hypertrophied state power was characteristic of the majority of Eastern countries even in the mature feudal period, and despite intervals of feudal fragmentation, there was a higher degree of state centralization.

The structure of the ruling class, which differed from one country to another, in many ways reflected the hypertrophy of the state. Proximity to the sovereign was of great importance in the makeup of the ruling class. In the Near East the leading role was played by a class of military servitors, often foreigners or even former slaves, such as the Mamelukes in Egypt. In China, Vietnam, and Korea, the central place in the ruling class was occupied by scholars (the shen shih in China), custodians of traditional ideology from among whom the state recruited most of its civil servants. Certain institutions that had evolved in the West (such as cities independent of feudal lords) did not emerge in the East, and urban life remained under the bureaucratic control of the state (with the exception of the city of Sakai in Japan).

Although commodity-money relations had developed earlier and more extensively in the East than in the West, by the 15th and 16th centuries the Oriental countries had begun to lag behind the West in this respect as well. The level of commercial output on the peasant farm was low, trade was often controlled by the feudal lords, and foreign trade predominated. The slow pace of economic development was mirrored in the ideological sphere. The religious and ideological superstructure that had taken shape by the time of the mature feudal period included elements of pre-feudal ideological systems, which gave it a particularly conservative character.

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, several Oriental countries, notably China, Korea, and India, witnessed a relatively strong development of commodity-money relations, the extensive use of wage labor in some areas of production, the subordination of crafts to commercial capital in a number of cases, and the emergence of forms of handicraft production only one step removed from manufacture. Nowhere in the East at that time, however, did these developments lead to the disintegration of feudalism and the formation of a capitalist system. Occurring in the new world historical epoch of the establishment, expansion, and decline of capitalism, the disintegration of feudalism in the Oriental countries was influenced by European capitalism and therefore differed substantially from the “classic” course it took in Western Europe.

In China, India, Iran, and the other Oriental countries the late feudal period apparently did not begin until the 19th century. The colonial enslavement of the Oriental countries resulted in the preservation and even, in some areas, the spread of feudal relations. Exploitation of the subjugated countries by feudal methods was a characteristic feature of the colonial policy of the European states in the period of primitive accumulation. The forms of feudal exploitation that prevailed in the Oriental countries were adapted by the colonialists to their needs. Thus, in one part of India the British hastened the transformation and consolidation of conditional feudal landholdings into privately owned feudal estates (seeZAMINDARI), thus creating for themselves a base of support in the class of new landowners. In another part of India the authorities made use of the traditions of state landownership (seeRYOTWARI).

The transition to exploitation of the colonies and dependent countries by the methods of industrial capitalism, particularly imperialist methods, hastened the disintegration of the subsistence economy of the Oriental countries and stimulated the rise of centers of capitalist production. The colonies were transformed into markets for European industrial goods and sources of raw materials; they were forcibly drawn into the worldwide capitalist market; and finally they served as spheres of investment for foreign capital. With the exception of Japan, however, these countries did not become capitalist but underwent a long and difficult period in which capitalist methods of exploitation coexisted with older, feudal methods. A capitalist sector developed chiefly in factory industry, plantation agriculture, and transportation, serving as a sphere of investment for foreign capital. The colonialists hindered the development of a national capitalist industry. Unable to compete with foreign goods, local handicraft production, which had retained its feudal character, disappeared.

Supported by foreign imperialism, feudalism survived in an altered state in almost every country of Asia and Africa until World War II, coexisting with capitalism and impeding progressive development. The economies of the colonies and dependent countries remained primarily agrarian and continued to be dominated by feudal landlords, while the landless and land-hungry peasants were exploited through precapitalist forms of land leasing. Precapitalist forms of rule also survived, including absolute monarchy, vestiges of theocracy, and traces of feudal fragmentation. Finally, obsolete religious and other forms of social consciousness continued to prevail in the sphere of ideology. The psychological vestiges of feudalism have proved the most tenacious, coloring the petit bourgeois peasant psychology of the masses and often distorting the liberation movement in certain countries.

The abolition of feudal and semifeudal agrarian relations—in other words, the resolution of the agrarian question—is one of the most important tasks of national liberation revolutions and movements, in which the antifeudal and anti-imperialist struggles are inextricably linked. Having achieved political independence, the majority of Asian and African countries have set out to attain their antifeudal objectives. How radical will be the solution to the problem of abolishing feudal relations in the economic and social fabric of these countries depends on the correlation of class forces within each country and in the international arena. Feudal relations may be broken up both by revolutionary methods and by bourgeois reforms. In the latter case, the elimination of feudal vestiges in social psychology and ideology lags behind transformations in the economic sphere.


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Marx, K., and F. Engels. Manifest Kommunisticheskoi partii. Ibid., vol. 4.
Marx, K. Kapital, vols. 1,3. Ibid., vols. 23, 25, parts 1–2.
Marx, K. Formy, predshestvuiushchie kapitalisticheskomu proizvodstvu. Ibid., vol. 46, part 1.
Engels, F. “Marka.” Ibid., vol. 19.
Engels, F. “Frankskii period.” Ibid.
Engels, F. Krest’ianskaia voina v Germanii. Ibid., vol. 7.
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Engels, F. “O razlozhenii feodalizma i vozniknovenii natsional’nykh gosudarstv.” Ibid.
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Lenin, V. I. “Krepostnoe khoziaistvo v derevne.” Ibid., vol. 25.
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M. A. BARG and V. N. NIKIFOROV (feudalism in the Oriental countries)
Feudalism on territory now included in the USSR. Feudal relations developed over a long period of time in the area that now constitutes the Soviet Union. Moreover, the chronology and intensity of feudal development in the area varied among different peoples and regions. Arising in Transcaucasia as early as the first half of the first millennium A.D., feudalism subsequently emerged in Middle Asia between the fifth and eighth centuries, among the Eastern Slavs between the sixth and eighth centuries, and in the Baltic region between the ninth and 11th centuries.
The peoples of Transcaucasia and Middle Asia shifted to feudalism as a result of the disintegration of slaveholding relations and the collapse of slaveholding states. The peasants, both commune members and slaves who had been allotted land, gradually evolved into a class of dependent feudal peasantry. Out of the slaveholding and tribal aristocracy arose the ruling class of feudal society. The peoples who settled these areas inherited strong traditions from the slaveholding states in various spheres of material culture. Agriculture flourished in Transcaucasia, with its predominantly mountainous terrain and subtropical climate.
In Middle Asia, feudal relations first originated in the large oases, the ancient centers of agriculture. Nomadic Ephthalite and Turkic tribes played a major role in the rise of feudal relations in the area. In both Transcaucasia and Middle Asia, feudal relations were emerging at a time when the inhabitants were repulsing invaders from Persia, Byzantium, and the Arab Caliphate.
The new social order needed an ideological foundation. In Transcaucasia this function was fulfilled by Christianity, which became the state religion of Armenia in A.D. 301 and spread throughout Georgia and Caucasian Albania in the third and fourth centuries. In Middle Asia, feudalism was sanctioned by Islam, which was imposed on the region after the Arab conquest. Everywhere the church became a major feudal institution. In the ninth and tenth centuries the formation of early feudal relations was completed in Transcaucasia and Middle Asia.
In contrast to the peoples of Transcaucasia and Middle Asia, the Eastern Slavs made a direct transition from a primitive communal system to feudalism. Although the Eastern Slavs were familiar with slave labor, they lacked the necessary conditions for the emergence of a slaveholding mode of production and, like many other peoples, proceeded to develop a feudal mode of production. The ensuing social and economic stratification of East Slavic society created the prerequisites for the formation of feudal relations and a feudal state system (seeKIEVAN RUS’). The dominant form of feudal property was state property, and the chief form of exploitation was the collection of tribute. The Old Russian princes seized communal land, bequeathing it to their heirs as hereditary land but giving it to their retainers for temporary use in payment for services or as a reward. The retainers had the right to collect taxes in kind, court fees, and other revenues from the land. The adoption of Christianity in Rus’ in 988–989 promoted the consolidation and development of feudal relations.
Between the tenth and the 12th centuries the princes, the boyars, and the church of the Old Russian state acquired vast tracts of land. Alongside the personally free communal peasants and townspeople there were large groups of dependent and semidependent people, known as smerdy, zakupy, riadovichi, cheliad’, kholopy, and raby. In Rus’ feudal relations developed amid an acute class struggle. Uprisings of smerdy and townspeople broke out in Rostov-Suzdal’ in 1024 and circa 1071, in Kiev in 1068–69 and 1113, and in Novgorod in 1207.
The period of mature feudalism witnessed the strengthening of large-scale feudal landownership and the political power of the feudal lords. The consolidation of feudal relations and the emergence of new local centers led to feudal fragmentation. This stage of feudalism was marked by expanding settlement of unoccupied land, a weakening of the economic and political dependence of local feudal lords on the rulers of the early feudal states, and the growth of commercial agriculture, crafts, and trade. The hierarchical structure of landholding and the system of vassal relations were firmly established.
The feudal fragmentation of Rus’ began in the second quarter of the 12th century, after the final collapse of the Kievan state. The subsequent development of feudal relations occurred within the newly formed successor states, the largest of which were the Rostov-Suzdal’ (later Vladimir-Suzdal’) Principality, the Galician-Volynian Principality, the Novgorod Feudal Republic, and the Pskov Feudal Republic. The feudal law of Kievan Rus’ and the period of feudal fragmentation was formulated in the Russkaia Pravda (law code), princely statutes, collections of laws, the Kormchie knigi, the Merilo Pravednoe, and various deeds and documents.
In the 13th century the development of feudal relations in Transcaucasia, Middle Asia, and Rus’ was retarded by the Mongol-Tatar invasion. In the Baltic region feudal relations were affected by the incursions of Germans and other aggressors. The direction and rate of feudal development varied significantly from one region to another. Whereas in northeastern Rus’, the political struggle for liberation from the Mongol-Tatar yoke was accompanied by economic revival and growing state power, repeated foreign invasions and internal dissension prevented the formation of strong centralized states in Middle Asia and Transcaucasia. Economic development was sluggish in Transcaucasia from the 15th to the 18th centuries and in Middle Asia from the 17th century.
In the lands of the Latvians and Estonians, the early feudal social structure was altered under the impact of the area’s conquest by German knights. A Baltic German synthesis of early and mature feudal relations emerged, characterized by the growth of corvée and a harsh system of national and religious oppression. By the mid-16th century the land-hungry and landless Baltic peasants had been completely enserfed. In order to increase its revenues from the territory it had conquered in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the Swedish monarchy in the 1680’s and 1690’s carried out a reduction, confiscating crown lands that had been acquired by the feudal aristocracy (about 80 percent of the Livonian and about 40 percent of the Estonian crown land) and relegating the former owners to the status of leaseholders.
Living under the rule of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Poland, the Ukrainian and Byelorussian peasantry was oppressed by both local and Lithuanian and Polish feudal lords. In the Ukraine, the 15th and 16th centuries saw an increase in the number of large feudal farms, called fol’varki (Polish, folwarki), which were created through the seizure of peasant land. From the late 14th century, the Grand Ducal authorities granted Byelorussian cities self-government under Magdeburg law, and in the late 15th and 16th centuries a guild system evolved. From the late 15th century the fol’vark system, based on corvée labor, spread throughout Byelorussia. In the mid-16th century, a land reform called volochnaia pomera was instituted in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, significantly increasing the seignorial tillage and the corvée obligations of the peasants.
During the 14th and 15th centuries peasants seeking refuge from invaders settled in the forested areas of northeastern Rus’ between the Oka and Volga rivers. Many of the large feudal holdings in the area belonged to the church, which had acquired a privileged status under Mongol-Tatar rule. The Russian princes also encouraged monastic colonization.
The Grand Principality of Moscow emerged from a prolonged political struggle as the focal point for the unification of the Russian lands and the formation of a single state. The strongest advocates of unification were the secular and ecclesiastical feudal lords, who looked to a strong state to defend their property from foreign invasions and popular uprisings.
The votchina (patrimony) was the typical form of landholding of the boyars and other feudal lords in the 14th and 15th centuries. Conditional landownership developed alongside the votchina. The growth of cities from the mid-14th century stimulated the development of crafts and trade, above all in Novgorod and Pskov.
Between the 15th and 17th centuries Russia’s socioeconomic relations were shaped by the further evolution of feudalism. The state pomest’e (service estate) system was strengthened; a complex hierarchy, regulated by the mestnichestvo system, emerged within the ruling class; and indigenous representative institutions known as zemskie sobory developed. As the central government became stronger, the secular and ecclesiastical feudal lords lost some of their privileges of immunity. Despite the remarkable growth of commodity-money relations in the 16th century, various areas and feudal votchiny remained economically isolated.
To meet their growing need for money, the feudal lords increased the revenues from their votchiny and pomest’ia by raising the quitrent, setting aside fields for their own tillage, and compelling the peasants to perform corvée. The system of feudal exploitation was extended to the peasants on the “black,” or state, lands. The Sudebnik (law code) of 1497 marked an important step toward the establishment of a national system of serfdom by legalizing the practice of allowing the peasants to leave their masters only on St. George’s Day in the autumn. Seeking land to grant to the dvorianstvo (nobility), the state repeatedly tried to reduce the church’s landholdings, a policy that the church stubbornly resisted. In the 16th century the course of feudalism in Russia clearly pointed to the strengthening of serfdom and autocracy. The oprichnina (seeOPRICHNINA) and the Livonian War of 1558–83 brought destruction to central and northwestern Russia, the country’s economically most highly developed regions, resulting in a mass flight of peasants and townspeople. Government measures introduced in the 1580’s and 1590’s ensured the entrenchment of serfdom on a national scale: “forbidden years” were established during which peasants were barred from leaving their masters even on St. George’s Day, and the apprehension of fugitive serfs was sanctioned by a decree.
The exacerbation of social contradictions brought on by the strengthening of serfdom provoked mass movements that culminated in the Peasant War of the early 17th century. The most important event of the war was the peasant uprising led by I. I. Bolotnikov. As the power of the dvorianstvo increased in the 17th century, the distinction between pomest’e and votchina gradually disappeared, resulting in the consolidation of the ruling class of feudal lords. The Sobornoe Ulozhenie (Assembly Code) of 1649 legalized serfdom in Russia. The appearance of increasingly harsh forms of serfdom in 17th-century Russia coincided with the strengthening of autocracy in the political superstructure. Complex socioeconomic developments, a difficult international position, and long wars caused a further deterioration in the condition of the masses and an unprecedented surge in popular movements, including urban uprisings, mass flight among peasants, the Peasant War of 1670–71, led by S. T. Razin, and the Schism (seeSCHISM).
“The modern period of Russian history (approximately from the 17th century) is characterized by the actual amalgamation of all . . . regions, lands, and principalities into one whole. This amalgamation . . . was brought about by the increasing exchange among regions, the gradually growing circulation of commodities, and the concentration of the small local markets into a single all-Russian market. Since the leaders and masters of this process were the merchant capitalists, the creation of these national ties was nothing else than the creation of bourgeois ties” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 1, pp. 153–54). The 17th century witnessed a general transformation of urban crafts into small-scale commodity production, a significant expansion of trade, the appearance of the first manufactures, the growth of merchant capital, and a notable increase in the economic and political importance of cities. In the 17th and 18th centuries an unusual situation developed in Russia. Over its vast territory serfdom and incipient bourgeois relations developed simultaneously, and it was not until the end of the 18th century that feudalism began to disintegrate under the impact of the formation of a capitalist system.
Far-reaching changes in the country’s economy, governmental structure, and culture were not introduced until the early 18th century, when the dvorianstvo’s dominant position was strengthened. From the 18th century to the early 20th, the dvorianstvo wielded enormous political power and reserved for itself all the key posts in the Russian government. The growth of the merchant class and the formation of bourgeois elements in the 18th century did not preclude the further strengthening of serfdom in its more brutal and coarse forms. Lenin maintained that in Russia serfdom “in no way differed from slavery” (ibid., vol. 39, p. 70). The pomeshchiki (noble landowners) gained full legal jurisdiction over their peasants, and it became a common practice to sell peasants without land. The dvorianstvo became an increasingly closed estate with exclusive privileges, particularly under Catherine II. Feudal relations were reinforced through the spread of serfdom to the newly acquired southern territories, notably Novorossiia and the Ukraine.
The pomeshchiki experienced growing economic difficulties as a result of the expansion of commodity-money relations. In an effort to strengthen the position of the dvorianstvo under these new conditions, the government secularized the church lands in order to distribute them to the nobles. The dvorianstvo directed all its efforts toward improving its economic position without losing its monopoly on landed property and its exclusive privilege of owning serfs. It intensified serf exploitation, sought to improve farming methods, and organized votchina industries. Moreover, peasants in nonchernozem areas were allowed to earn money for quitrent in the towns; in the chernozem areas the corvée was increased.
None of these measures, however, sufficed to reverse the decline in the feudal economy because in every case the peasants were to some extent detached from the land, and the peasant farm, the basic production unit of feudal society, was undermined. Feudalism had exhausted its possibilities for progressive development. As the Russian economy lagged further and further behind, the class struggle of the masses reached a new height in the Peasant War led by E. I. Pugachev, when for the first time demands were made for the abolition of serfdom. The first Russian revolutionary republican, A. N. Radishchev, denounced serfdom at the end of the 18th century, and the Decembrists took up the cause at the beginning of the 19th century.
The crisis of feudalism in Russia was a protracted one owing to the disparity in the socioeconomic development of various regions in an immense country and the partial “easing” of social contradictions through the colonization of new lands. Among the main factors responsible for the persistence of feudalism were the power of the absolutist feudal state, the strength of nobiliary landownership, and the weakness of the nascent Russian bourgeoisie, which was closely linked to the serfholding autocracy and to the feudal structure as a whole. It was not until the second quarter of the 19th century that a precipitous decline became apparent in the pomeshchik economy. The growth of popular movements, the spread of revolutionary democratic ideas, and the defeat of tsarism in the Crimean War (1853–56) obliged the ruling class and the government to abolish serfdom in 1861 (seePEASANT REFORM OF 1861).
Even after the abolition of serfdom in Russia and the relatively rapid development of capitalism that followed, strong vestiges of feudalism—pomeshchik landownership and autocracy—lingered on for more than half a century. Semiserf forms of peasant exploitation still existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After the inclusion of the Caucasus, Middle Asia, and other territories in the Russian Empire in the 19th century, not only did bourgeois relations spread to these areas, but obsolete feudal relations were also preserved. The tsarist government deliberately supported the grafting of local feudal institutions onto the bureaucratic and economic system of the empire and the preservation of reactionary social elements. The urgency of the agrarian issue was one of the causes of the bourgeois democratic Revolution of 1905–07 in Russia and the bourgeois democratic February Revolution of 1917. In the course of the struggle against the vestiges of feudalism and capitalist exploitation, a revolutionary alliance of workers and peasants was formed that, under the leadership of the Communist Party, brought about the victory of the Great October Socialist Revolution. Lenin’s Decree on Land, endorsed by the Second Congress of Soviets on Oct. 26 (Nov. 8), 1917, abolished pomeshchik landownership forever, thereby putting an end to the vestiges of feudalism in the country.


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1. the legal and social system that evolved in W Europe in the 8th and 9th centuries, in which vassals were protected and maintained by their lords, usually through the granting of fiefs, and were required to serve under them in war
2. any social system or society, such as medieval Japan or Ptolemaic Egypt, that resembles medieval European feudalism
References in periodicals archive ?
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