Dealing with the F-word: Feudalism and the History Classroom

Ahistory teacher unfamiliar with medieval studies who peruses a textbook’s account of feudalism would have no way of knowing that the account presented bears little resemblance to the understanding of the topic current among medieval historians. For while the narrative presented in most textbooks is clear and linear, medievalists contest hotly the definition of feudalism, and indeed the question of whether the term has any use at all to describe the multitude of social situations that existed in Europe during the Middle Ages. The purpose of this paper, then, is threefold: first, to outline briefly the narrative used by most high school textbooks when it comes to describing medieval society; second, to point out the flaws in that narrative, and to give a brief overview of current scholarship on the topic; and finally, to suggest, in light of current scholarship, alternative strategies for teaching students about the outlines of medieval society.The narrative presented in most high school history textbooks regarding the formation of medieval society is attractively elegant and straightforward.{1} It goes something like this: After the death of Charlemagne, during the ninth century, centralized administrative and military power began to erode. Around the same time, Europe came under increased attack from a variety of hostile non-Christian outsiders: Vikings, Saracens, and Magyars. Without the centralized power of the Carolingian Empire to coordinate resistance against these attackers, local leaders were forced to organize their own forces. They turned to what the textbooks define as feudalism: the leaders granted land (fiefs) to local warriors in exchange for the warriors’ professions of loyalty (homage) and military service. These warriors, now known as vassals, could be called upon for a predetermined period of military service to the local rulers, now known as lords—according to the textbooks, usually forty days. Some textbooks even describe a “feudal pyramid,” with the king at the top, lords beneath him, and warrior-vassals at the bottom. A separate section of the textbook is usually devoted to describing the agrarian economic system, generally called “manorialism,” based on peasant labor, that supported the warrior elites.

Several problems exist with the narrative outlined above. One is chronological. The narrative suggests that the decision to grant land in return for military and administrative service was an innovation developed in response to the collapse of Charlemagne’s empire. But, a perceptive student might ask, in the cash-poor economy of the period, how did Charlemagne himself compensate his soldiers and administrators? The answer, of course, is that he did so in the same way that feudal lords did: with grants of land. He also used oaths of loyalty to help bind these royal servants to him. Was Charlemagne, then, a feudal king? The textbook account describes feudalism as a post-Carolingian institution. The fact that Charlemagne used many of the same methods of rulership as did post-Carolingian “feudal” lords plainly contradicts that account. Some strategies for resolving this contradiction will appear below, but for now, it serves as one example of the problems of the textbook narrative.

Another problem with the textbook narrative is geographical. While examples supporting the textbook model of fiefs for fealty indeed can be found in what is now northern and western France, extending the model beyond those limited geographic boundaries stresses the model. Two examples will help illustrate the point. According to the textbook narrative, the breakdown of centralized power under the pressure of attacks from Vikings, Saracens, and Magyars created the decentralized military-political institution known as feudalism. Some of those same textbooks, however, will note in another chapter that the German emperor Otto I defeated the Magyars at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955. They will elsewhere describe that the Anglo-Saxon king Alfred the Great campaigned successfully against the Vikings in England during his reign (871-899). In both these cases, centralized royal authority is apparently alive and well, and key to repulsing the attacks of these outsiders. If the collapse of strong central authority in Europe after the death of Charlemagne led local leaders to devise feudal solutions for their problems, how then do we explain these strong monarchs taking the lead in their realms? What happened in those areas of Europe, such as the Iberian Peninsula, that were never under the strong central authority of Charlemagne’s empire in the first place? Again, strategies for incorporating this more nuanced account of medieval society will appear later.
One might reply to the objections above that, given the limited time and background of most students of Western Civilization or World History, a general model of medieval society such as the one outlined in the textbook (the labor of agrarian peasants on manors supporting a warrior elite who received those manors from their lords in return for military service and homage) is still desirable. But current scholarship on medieval society challenges even the most basic assumptions of this model. Perhaps the best work on the subject has been done by Elizabeth A.R. Brown, whose 1974 article, “The Tyranny of a Construct,” {2}outlined the flaws in the feudal model described in most history textbooks. To outline her argument briefly, the exchange of fief for fealty is a construct of the early modern period, devised by seventeenth-century legal scholars who sought to systemize and explain the practices they encountered in medieval legal records. They based their model on the twelfth-century legal text Libri Feudorum (Books of Fiefs), itself a northern Italian legal text with little correlation to contemporary social practice throughout Europe. The ideas of these early modern legal scholars were adopted and promoted by successive generations until, by the nineteenth century, the idea of a “feudal system” had become ingrained in historical thought about the Middle Ages.

As early as 1887-88, however, scholars recognized that feudalism was a model constructed after—and not during—the Middle Ages. F.W. Maitland, the famous historian of English law, quipped in a series of lectures that feudalism reached its fullest development, not under a late-medieval king, but under a seventeenth-century Scottish lawyer. {3} Later historians followed Maitland in qualifying their discussions of feudalism. Marc Bloch, the famous historian of medieval French society, noted that every historian understood the word differently. {4}Despite these realizations, Brown observed, historians have continued to use the term “feudalism,” each defining it in his or her own way. François Ganshof, for example, believes that the presence of the fief is of primary importance; without the exchange of land for service, the system is not feudal. Joseph Strayer, on the other hand, downplayed the importance of the fief in favor of the practice of delegating ruling authority to local leaders. {5}Finally, some French scholars such as Georges Duby and Pierre Bonnassie have turned their attention from relations between lords and vassals to relations between lords and peasants, arguing that “banal lordship,” characterized by the decline in small private landowners and the increase in the exactions imposed on peasants—such as taxes, work obligations, and monopolies on mills and bread ovens—best characterized feudalism. {6}In the traditional textbook model, such relationships are consigned to a separate section on “manorialism,” a term that has fallen out of use entirely among modern medieval historians. As in the case of feudalism, studies of medieval agrarian economic systems have revealed such diversity of practice as to make a single term such as “manorialism” unpopular.

Given the inapplicability of the term, and the lack of agreement about its use among professional medievalists, why do textbooks and historians continue to use the term “feudalism”? Brown notes two reasons commonly cited among medievalists. The first argument suggests that the idea of feudalism serves as a useful construct; it is a general term that, if properly defined, can provide an easy shorthand for the social structures under study. This argument might, on its face, appear especially appealing to high school teachers who lack time in the curriculum to provide a more detailed description of medieval society. However, recent scholarship—and particularly the work of Susan Reynolds—has demolished the notion that the term “feudalism,” and in particular the “fief for fealty” model found in most history textbooks, can be said to have had any broad application in medieval society. Susan Reynolds’s book, Fiefs and Vassals, surveys legal documents from across Europe geographically, and across the ninth to thirteenth centuries chronologically. {7}Her conclusions are clear: terms such as “fief” and “vassal” meant widely different things at different times and places, depending on the legal context. The textbook model of “fiefs for fealty,” in short, posits a uniformity over time and place that cannot be supported by the existing historical evidence.

But the defenders of feudalism as a valid concept raise a second argument, aimed in particular at students. While professional historians may not find the word useful, the defenders argue, it still can serve as a useful heuristic device for students; and as they advance in their studies, they can be taught where the general model they learned in high school does not apply. This argument has several obvious flaws. Most importantly, it denigrates the seriousness with which high school teachers prepare their curriculum and the vigor with which they strive for accuracy in their presentations. Indeed, the very premise underlying this article goes directly counter to the dismissive approach so advanced. Even aside from matters of professional integrity, the practical matter of instilling information that the instructor knows to be inaccurate and misleading in students when they are young and most impressionable, when they will be forming the notions that will inform all their future studies in medieval history, should give the instructor pause. Is not our charge to provide students with the best possible education, not merely the one that will cause us the least trouble in teaching it?
Having rejected the notion of feudalism, though, one is left with the question of what to replace it with. If one is not going to talk about fiefs and fealty, lords and vassals, what shall one talk about? Brown offers some good suggestions in her article. First, and most importantly, the teacher should be descriptive, not prescriptive. As discussed above, many scholars fall into the trap of using the term “feudalism” and then devoting much energy to defining it in such a way that it fits the situation they’re writing about. Rather than falling into this trap, teachers could simply describe the basic outlines of medieval society without reference to the term “feudalism.” Richard W. Southern’s book Making the Middle Ages, particularly the chapter on medieval society, “Social Bonds,” represents a fine example of such descriptive scholarship. {8}Southern lucidly illustrates the key elements of medieval social relations without ever resorting to the use of the term “feudalism.” Similarly, Georges Duby, in his seminal regional study on medieval society in the Mâconnais, a region of southwestern France, eschewed the term “feudalism” for a detailed description of the social relations reflected in the historical documents. {9}Other scholars have drawn attention to some of the many other ways, aside from the “fief for fealty” trade, by which medieval elites structured their societies. Fredric L. Cheyette’s important article “Suum quique tribuere” {10}examines how medieval people settled disputes in the absence of a formal legal system of the sort that would be familiar to plaintiffs and defendants today, while German scholar Gerd Althoff has focused on how medieval rulers used rituals to demonstrate personal relationships that formed the foundations of their power. {11}

The wide range of approaches, and the works that outline them, can seem daunting to the teacher limited to a few weeks in which to teach the outlines of medieval society. But it need not be so. There certainly are some general principles that can be taught about medieval society. For example, compared with today, communication technology in the Middle Ages was very limited and travel was slow; thus, much governmental authority had devolved to the local level. Personal relationships, whether they were ties of kinship, oaths of fealty, or formal declarations of amity, carried much greater official weight in political, legal, and social relations than they do today. The citizens of a modern-day town would be very suspicious if their mayor were to give all the city’s contracts to his brothers-in-law, cousins, and nephews. In the Middle Ages, however, it was considered normal and sensible for the German emperor, for example, to confer the most important dukedoms and bishoprics on his brothers and cousins. After all, whom could/should he trust with such crucial offices? As a consequence of these facts, legal and administrative authority was very often delegated along lines of personal relationship, and authority in general tended to be far more decentralized and local than today. Further, the distinctions between property and authority, which are very strong today, were far less rigid in the Middle Ages. The right to collect taxes or to levy fines, which today is considered a legitimate function only of public civil authority, was in many places regarded as a personal property, just as a vineyard or an estate would be. It could be given away, traded, sold, or inherited like a piece of land. Finally, it is important to understand the radically different worldview of medieval people. The aristocratic elites embraced warrior values of courage and honor, which in turn shaped their activities in society, while all classes of society were strongly influenced by the Church (although to explain the role of religion in medieval society would require another entire article—watch this space!). Obviously there are exceptions to all these generalizations, but no college professor who received into his medieval historical survey class a student who understands these generalities would find him or her lacking.

Another factor to consider carefully when selecting ideas to present in a class on the Middle Ages is the background that students bring into the classroom. Popular culture, through movies such as “A Knight’s Tale,” fantasy novels such as J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings and its myriad pale imitations, and computer games such as “Age of Empires,” shapes a student’s perceptions of the medieval period. Blunt statements that such depictions are inaccurate will not, as most teachers know, gain much traction against the savvy multimedia marketing campaigns that promote them. However, encouraging students to locate medieval socio-political relations in the larger context of medieval studies, especially the literature of chivalric romance, opens the door to a parallel exercise in locating such contemporary depictions of a fantastic medieval past as “A Knight’s Tale” or “Age of Empires” within the larger context of modern knowledge and presentations of the Middle Ages. In this way, students can be encouraged to analyze critically those elements of medieval society that are included in modern depictions, to discern where the reality is distorted, and to understand the ends to which those distortions are made. Such an approach not only pushes students to think on a variety of levels, but it also serves to demonstrate to them how they can apply the skills of critical thinking and source analysis to their lives outside the classroom.
Furthermore, rather than relying on stale and outdated textbook models to convey the principles outlined above, teachers will find it both more rewarding and more effective to challenge students to think for themselves about medieval society in ways similar to professional historians. Use primary sources, such as donation charters, contemporary chronicles, saints’ lives, or contemporary works of literature to illustrate important points (a fine range of these sources is available online at Encourage students to analyze what is going on in selected texts, rather than to rely on the models spoon-fed to them by the textbook. Challenge them to explain why medieval people might have done things in the ways described in those documents, bearing in mind the basic principles of medieval society outlined above. Following such basic principles will not only provide students with a firmer grasp of the nuances of medieval society than their textbook would give them, but it also will encourage them to develop more fully the academic skills that will allow them to be successful in college. Perhaps enabling them to act as historians may kindle in them an interest in medieval history itself, such as the interest that has brought you here to read, and me here to write, this brief article.

Raymond V. Lavoie
Campbell Hall Episcopal School

  • For example, the three textbooks I have used in world history classes over the past four years: Jackson J. Spielvogel, World History: The Human Odyssey (Wadsworth, 1998), 353-355; Walter Wallbank, et. al., Civilization Past and Present (Longman, 1996), 305-307; Edgar Schuster, World History: Patterns of Interaction (Houghton-Mifflin, 1999), 322-326. [back]
  • Elizabeth A.R. Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe” American Historical Review 79 (1974): 1063-88. The article is reprinted in Lester K. Little and Barbara H. Rosenwein, eds. Debating the Middle Ages: Issues and Readings (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998), 148-69, which I recommend highly for an overview of the period. Many of the articles cited later in this paper are available in this collection. Pagination in subsequent notes follows the reprint in Little and Rosenwein. [back]
  • Brown, 149-51. [back]
  • Brown, 153. [back]
  • Brown, 155-6 [back]
  • Brown, 157-8, and Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle. Croissance et mutations d’une société, 2 vols (Toulouse, Association des Publications de l’Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail, 1975). Portions of chapter 7 of Bonnassie’s work are translated and reprinted in Little and Rosenwein, 114-33. [back]
  • Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994). [back]
  • Richard W. Southern, Making the Middle Ages (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953). [back]
  • Georges Duby, La societé aux XIe et XIIe siècles dans la région mâconnaise (Paris, 1953). [back]
  • Fredric L. Cheyette, “Suum quique tribuere,” French Historical Studies 6 (1969/70), 287-299. Reprinted in Little and Rosenwein as “Giving Each His Due,” 170-179. [back]
  • Gerd Althoff, Verwandte, Freunde, und Getreue: Zum politisichen Stellenwert der Gruppenbindungen im früheren Mittelalter (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1990). One portion of his book is translated in Little and Rosenwein, 192-210, as “Amicitiae [Friendships] as Relationships Between States and People.”

Original Citation: Scientia Scholae, Volume I, Issue 1, September 2002

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.  The original “look and feel”  of the journal has been preserved as much as possible, but the original logos have also been removed.  No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies