feudalism and feudal society

feudalism and feudal society

a type of agrarian society in which land is held conditional upon military or other service, and in which there is a hierarchy of political power based upon contractual rights and obligations, usually with a monarch at the head, and in which unfree PEASANTS work the land as SERFS. There are a number of significant debates surrounding the term and this definition would be disputed by many contributors to the controversies. The main areas of debate are:
  1. whether feudalism evolved only in Europe and Japan or has occurred more widely Most writers would agree that much of Western Europe between c. AD 1000-1400 (the so-called Middle Ages) could be described as feudal, and for longer in Eastern Europe. The period in Japan known as the Tokugawa (1603-1868) has such key similarities with Europe that the term has been widely applied there. Beyond that, there are strong disagreements which link to the second area of debate;
  2. whether feudalism is seen as a societal form, or whether the term applies to a set of institutions which may be found in a range of societies.

If feudalism is defined in the latter sense, then political or economic aspects are also usually defined. Politically, feudalism is generally seen as the dominance of a militarized land-possessing group linked in a hierarchy of vassalage in which subordinates owed allegiance and military service to a superior through a personal contract, and the superior (or lord) in return provided protection and advancement for the vassal. In Europe, this involved a chain of lord-vassal relationships from the monarch downwards. Economically, feudalism can be defined as centring around the holding of land conditional upon services (in Europe, the fief), with the peasants being unfree serfs who, through various forms of rent, gave up a surplus to the land holder. Typically production would not be for the market, although markets did develop.

If the institutional approach is taken, then it may be possible to identify feudal land-holding in societies where feudal political relationships do not exist. This, for example, has been argued for the HACIENDA in colonial Spanish America. However, within contemporary sociology (e.g. MANN, 1986; ANDERSON, 1974a & b) there is a preference for defining feudalism as a type of society incorporating certain political, economic, social, and, more problematically, ideological or cultural elements, even though (e.g. by Anderson), it may be recognized that there can be variations, such as differences between Southern, Western and Eastern Europe. It is this societal approach which leads to few instances of feudalism being identified in the world. The arguments about a restrictive or general usage of the term cuts across other debates within sociology. Thus some Marxists, such as Anderson, keep to a restrictive use, whilst the influence of Maoist work leads others to identify feudalism in a variety of agrarian societies. See also FEUDAL MODE OF PRODUCTION.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000