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, 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,
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(also feud or fee), in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, a payment in land or in money or in kind made by a suzerain to his vassal (seeVASSALAGE). The hereditary tenure of a fief was conditional upon the vassal’s fulfillment of feudal service to his lord; this service was primarily military but could also entail service at court, such as participation in trials or in the management of a seigniory, or involve the payment of a sum fixed by custom. The vassals, in turn, usually gave part of their lands or income to their own vassals, a practice known as subinfeudation; eventually, a hierarchy was established on a single landholding, which could support a vertical series of feudal tenants.
The fief, whose precursor was the benefice, was the characteristic form of property of the ruling class in Western Europe from the 11th to 15th century, the period of developed feudalism. From this period, however, the system based on the fief began to decline. The fiefs were broken up through subinfeudation and, as commodity-money relations became prevalent, so did the use of money-fiefs, the right to some type of revenue, granted to a vassal instead of land with serfs. In addition, the feudal lords began relying on paid troops for military support. By the 15th or 16th centuries, the system of fiefs had become a legal fiction.