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Examples of feudalism

Examples of feudalism are helpful to fully understand feudalism and feudal society. Feudalism was practiced in many different ways, depending on location and time period, thus a high-level encompassing conceptual definition does not always provide a reader with the intimate understanding that detailed historical examples provide.[citation needed]

Western European FeudalismEdit

12th century EnglandEdit

Feudalism in 12th century England was among the better structured and established in Europe at the time. However, it could be structurally complex, which is illustrated by the example of the feudal barony of Stafford as described in a survey of knight's fees made in 1166 and recorded in The Black Book of the Exchequer. This was a roll of parchment or several such, recording the quantity and tenant of each knight's fee held in capite. It was a record commissioned by the Treasury as the knight's fee was the primary basis for assessing certain types of taxation, for example, feudalism is the exchange of land for military service, thus everything was based on what was called the knight's fee, which is a fiefdom or estate of land. A feudal barony contained several knight's fees, for example the baron Robert of Stafford held a barony containing 60 knight's fees. Often lords were not so much lords presiding over great estates, but managers of a network of tenants and sub-leases.

Stafford tenants were themselves lords of the manors they held from him, which is altogether different from their being barons. Henry d'Oilly, who held 3 fees from Robert of Stafford, also held, as a tenant-in-chief, over 30 fees elsewhere that had been granted to him directly by the king. Thus while Henry was the vassal of his overlord Robert, Henry was himself a lord of his own manors held in capite and sub-enfeoffed many of his manors which he did not keep in demesne, that is to say under his own management using simple employees. It would also have been possible and not uncommon for a situation where Robert of Stafford was a vassal of Henry elsewhere, creating the condition of mutual lordship/vassalage between the two. These complex relationships invariably created loyalty problems through conflicts of interests. To resolve this the concept of a liege lord existed, which meant that the vassal was loyal to his liege lord above all others, except the king himself, no matter what. However, even this sometimes broke down when a vassal would pledge himself to more than one liege lord.

From the perspective of the smallest land holder, multiple networks of tenancy were layered on the same small plot of land. A chronicle of the time says "different lordships lay on the land in different respects". Each tenant laid claim to a certain aspect of the service from the land.

11th century FranceEdit

Among the complexities of feudal arrangements, there existed no guarantee that contracts between lord and vassal would be honored, and feudal contracts saw little enforcement from those with greater authority. This often resulted in the wealthier and more powerful party taking advantage of the weaker.

Such was (allegedly) the case of Hugh de Lusignan and his relations with his lord William V of Aquitaine. Between 1020 and 1025 Hugh wrote or possibly dictated a complaint against William and his vassals describing the unjust treatment he had received at the hands of both. Hugh describes a convoluted intermingling of loyalties that was characteristic of the period and instrumental in developing strain between nobles that resulted in competition for each other's land. According to Hugh's account, William wronged him on numerous occasions, often to the benefit of William's vassals. Many of his properties suffered similar fates: seized by opponents and divided between them and William. William apparently neglected to send military aid to Hugh when necessary and dealt most unfairly in the exchange of hostages. Each time Hugh reclaimed one of his properties, William ordered him to return it to whomever had recently taken it from him. William broke multiple oaths in succession yet Hugh continued to put faith in his lord's word, to his own ruin. In his last contract with William, over possession of his uncle's castle at Chiza, Hugh dealt in no uncertain terms and with frank language:

Hugh: You are my lord, I will not accept a pledge from you, but I will simply rely on the mercy of God and yourself.

William: Give up all those claims over which you have quarreled with me in the past and swear fidelity to me and my son and I will give you your uncle's honor [Chizes] or something else of equal value in exchange for it.
Hugh: My lord, I beg you through God and this blessed crucifix which is made in the figure of Christ that you do not make me do this if you and your son were intending to threaten me with trickery.
William: On my honor and my son I will do this without trickery.
Hugh: And when I shall have sworn fidelity to you, you will demand Chizes castle of me, and if I should not turn it over to you, you will say that it is not right that I deny you the castle which I hold from you, and if I should turn it over to you, you and your son will seize it because you have given nothing in pledge except the mercy of God and yourself.

William: We will not do that, but if we should demand it of you, don't turn it over to us.[1]

While perhaps an embellishment of the truth for the sake of Hugh's cause, and not necessarily a microcosm of the feudal system everywhere, the Agreement Between Lord and Vassal is evidence at least of corruption in feudal rule.

Holy Roman EmpireEdit


Portugal, originally a part of the Kingdom of León, was an example of a feudal society, according to Marc Bloch.[2]

Portugal has its roots in a feudal state in northern Iberia, the County of Portugal, established in 868 within the Kingdom of Asturias. The Vímara Peres, the local counts dynasty, was suppressed in 1071, but twenty two years later, in 1093, King Alphonse VI of Léon and Castille gave the county as a fiefdom to Henry of Burgundy (a younger Capet who was participating in the reconquista), when he married Theresa, the king's natural daughter.

In spite of their vassal link, Henry had a remarkable autonomy, especially after his father-in law's death in 1109. The Portuguese independence was obtained by his son, Afonso I of Portugal when, after defeating the Muslims at the Battle of Ourique, proclaimed himself King of Portugal in 1139, cutting definitively all feudal bonds with the Kingdom of León. Upon seeing the weakness of feudal society due to the Muslim invasion, Portugal became independent from the Kingdom of León as Castile had done a century earlier.[2]

North American coloniesEdit

Semi-feudal systems accompanied colonialism in some European settlements in North America:

"Semi-feudal" (non-Western European) feudalismEdit

Outside of a medieval European historical context, the concept of feudalism is generally used by analogy (called semi-feudal), most often in discussions of Japan under the shōguns, and, sometimes, nineteenth-century Ethiopia. However, some have taken the feudalism analogy further, seeing it in places as diverse as Ancient Egypt, the Parthian empire, India, and the American South of the nineteenth century.

Byzantine EmpireEdit

Pronoia, the 11th-century system of land grants in the Byzantine empire, makes a useful contrast to feudal tenure in the European West. Another distinction between the European West can be made in that paroiki (people who lived and farmed on the land of the Pronoiars) owed no debt or loyalty to the pronoiars (the recipients of the Pronoia).[3] This system was adopted by Serbia and then the Ottoman Empire after the fall of the Byzantine Empire at their hands, which called their land grants timar and the recipients of the land grants "timariots".


In contrast to Western Europe where feudalism created a strong central power, it took a strong central power to develop feudalism in Russia. A lack of true central power weakened and doomed the Russians to outside domination. The Russians developed its system of land/lord/worker, loosely called feudalism, after it had created a strong central power. Lacking a feudal system of vassal loyalty made it impossible for any prince, early on, to gain enough influence and power to project a strong force against any invaders.

In contrast to other European forms of serfdom and feudalism there was a lack of vassalage and loyalty to the lord whose land the serfs worked. It took a much longer period of time for feudalism to develop but when it did it took on a much harsher form than elsewhere in Europe. Serfs had no rights whatsoever; they could be traded like livestock by their lords. They had no ownership of anything, including their own families, all of which belonged to their lord.

Another major difference was the lack of independent principalities; this was due to the lack of vassalage. As separate lords did not command their own troops to protect their own lands.[4]


The Nakharar system used by the Armenian nobility throughout Medieval Armenia has often been described as feudal, with hereditary houses of nobles owning large estates, each headed by its own tanuter, and with the estates themselves divided amongst the family. For Armenia as a whole, a Sparapet (supreme commander), King, and chief Aspet were each taken from individual noble houses. However, Armenian feudalism differs from the feudalism of most of Europe as the estates were owned by families, not lords, and could not be split or given without the family's permission. Also, if a tanuter died heirless, he was succeeded by a different branch of the family, rather than by a noble who was sworn to him. Cilician Armenia, through contact with crusader states, had a system even closer to western feudalism. The economic and political systems of medieval Europe in which people exchanged loyalty and labor for a lord's protection[clarification needed]

India, Pakistan and BangladeshEdit

The Taluqdari or Zamindari system is often referred to as a feudal or feudal-like system. Originally the system was introduced in the pre-colonial period to collect taxes from peasants, and it continued during colonial British rule. After independence Zamindari was abolished in India and East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh), but it is still present today in Pakistan. In modern times historians have become very reluctant to classify other societies into European models and today it is rare for Zamindari to be described as feudal by academics; it still done in popular usage, however, but only for pejorative reasons to express disfavour, typically by critics of the system.


The People's Republic of China is officially a Marxist–Leninist society and state, based on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics under a people's democratic dictatorship, and attempts have been made by Marxist academics to record China's history in the PRC.[5] Feudalism is the model that modern Chinese Marxists and Tokyo school historians use to identify China's recent past, neologized from the Chinese concept of fengjian[6] (which means to allocate a region or piece of land to an individual, establishing him as the ruler of that region[7]), a term used to designate the multi-state which existed in China under the Zhou dynasty, and was eradicated by the Qin,[6] by which time the state of Qin had conquered all other states and established the first China-wide empire. After King Wu of Zhou defeated the Shang dynasty, he created five hereditary ranks; 公 gōng, 侯 hóu, 伯 , 子 and 男 nán, commonly translated as Duke, Marquis, Earl (or Count), Viscount and Baron. However, unlike their Western European equivalents, the titles often indicated more in the way of perceived nobility rather than amount of land possessed. For example, the Lords of the eventually huge states of Qin and Chu were known as "Earls" and "Viscounts", while the Lord of Song was given the title of "Duke" on the merits of his descent from the previous Shang royal lineage, rather than his level of power. Ancient Chinese texts can sometimes cause confusion as it was also considered to be polite to address rulers as gōng regardless of their actual rank. As the Zhou dynasty's control weakened, the regional magnates caused further title inflation by referring to themselves as Kings; the inflation was such that under the Han dynasty, many local lords were established with the title of "king"; in imperial China, the character is thus more normally rendered as "prince".

The Zhou Dynasty can be seen as a true feudal system as it is in many respects very similar to the system used in Medieval Europe.[8] Each lord was given land, and his power was legitimised by nominal allegiance to the central Zhou king; politics thus revolved around these noble households. In fact, the notion of "prime minister" 太宰 in ancient Chinese came from the feudal time meaning the "chief housekeeper" or "butler" of the noble household, in a similar way to the development of such European titles as "constable". Each feudal state was governed independently with taxes, currency and laws set by each individual household, but the nobles were required to pay regular homage to the Zhou Kings as an act of fealty. At the time of war the nobles were required to provide armed service to the King. Approaching the end of the Zhou dynasty, the power of the King dwindled while the power of the nobles had risen. This resulted in what is known as the Spring and Autumn period and Warring States periods when the nobles fought each other constantly for supremacy. This resulted in the collapse of the noble ranking system, with the feudally organised society of the Springs and Autumns largely replaced by more bureaucratised states with standing armies, who no longer paid any attention to the Zhou.[9]

After King Ying Zheng of Qin, known to posterity as the First Emperor of Qin, defeated his rival states, deposing the Zhou and founding the first empire, he formally abolished the largely defunct feudal system, replacing it with a bureaucratised system of literate civil servants.[10] Despite the rapid collapse of the Qin and an abortive attempt at reinstitution of feudalism by Xiang Yu, the following Han dynasty maintained the vast majority of his bureaucratic reforms, establishing them as the new standard of government for the next two thousand years of imperial Chinese history.[11] While Han Confucian scholarship would decry the First Emperor as a tyrant whose "crimes against humanity" included removing feudalism, looked back on as integral to the idealised society of the Western Zhou, feudalism in the sense of devolved power for a military elite would not again be implemented in China.


Whether Tibet constituted a feudal social system or if peasants can be considered serfs is still debated.[12] Studied districts of Tibet between the 17th and 20th century show evidence of a striated society with land ownership laws and tax responsibility that resemble European feudal systems. However, scholars have pointed out key differences that make the comparison contested and only limited evidence from that period is available for study.[13] Scholar Geoff Samuel further argued that Tibet even in the early 20th century did not constitute a single state but rather a collection of districts and a legal system of Lhasa with particular land and tax laws did not extend over the entire country.[14] However, according to Melvyn Goldstein, for the 20th century, the Tibetan political system can not be categorized as feudal.[15]


The Tokugawa shogunate was a feudal military dictatorship of Japan established in the 17th century lasting until 1868. It marks a period often referred to loosely as 'feudal Japan', otherwise known as the Edo period. While modern historians have become very reluctant to classify other societies into European models, in Japan, the system of land tenure and a vassal receiving tenure in exchange for an oath of fealty is very close to what happened in parts of medieval Europe, and thus the term is sometimes used in connection with Japan.[16] Friday notes that in the 21st century, historians of Japan rarely invoke feudalism; instead of looking at similarities, specialists attempting comparative analysis concentrate on fundamental differences.[17]

Modern traces of feudalismEdit


Scots law is quite different from English law. One scholar explained it in 1924 as following:

It is a law of Roman and feudal origin which has been adapted in the course of eight centuries by legislation and by judicial decisions to the needs of the Scottish people, and during the last century has, little by little, been combining with the English law by a slow operation of fusion.[18]

The system of land tenure in Scotland was until recently feudal in nature. In theory, this meant that the land was held under The Crown as ultimate feudal superior. Historically, The Crown would make a grant of land in return for military or other services and the grantees would in turn make sub-grants for other services and so on. Those making grants – the "superiors" – retained a legal interest in the land ("dominium directum"), and so a hierarchical structure was created with each property having a number of owners, co-existing simultaneously. Only one of these, the vassal, has what in normal language would be regarded as ownership of the property ("dominium utile").

In the 18th century, peasants were dispossessed of the land to which they were bonded.[19]

The Abolition of Feudal Tenure etc. (Scotland) Act 2000 abolished the feudal system of land tenure in Scotland and replaced it with a system of outright ownership of land. Since the Act became fully effective from 28 November 2004, the vassal owns the land outright, and superiority interests disappeared. The right of feudal superiors to enforce conditions was ended, subject to certain saving provisions of a restricted nature. Feu duty was abolished although compensation may be payable. The delay between royal assent and coming into force was a result of the great number of transitional arrangements needed to be put into place before final abolition and because of the close relation that the 2000 Act has to the Title Conditions Act 2003.[20]


Unique in England, the village of Laxton in Nottinghamshire continues to retain some vestiges of the feudal system, where the land is still farmed using the open field system. The feudal court now only meets annually, with its authority now restricted to management of the farmland.[21]


The tiny island of Sark, in the Channel Islands, was arguably the last feudal state in Europe. It was a feudal state up until April 9, 2008. The island was a fiefdom of the larger nearby island of Guernsey and administered independently by a Seigneur, who was a vassal to the land's owner – the Queen of the United Kingdom. Sark's ruling body voted on 4 October 2006 to replace the remaining tenement seats in Chief Pleas with a fully elected democratic government. This was implemented on April 9, 2008.[22]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Geary, P 2010, Readings in Medieval History, Fourth Edition, University of Toronto, Toronto.
  2. ^ a b Marc Bloch, Feudal Society Vol.2, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd
  3. ^ Harvey, Allen (1989) Economic Expansion in the Byzantine Empire, 900–1200 pp.1–13
  4. ^ Blum, Jerome, Lord and Peasant in Russia. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961
  5. ^ "In China, Feudal Answers for Modern Problems". Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  6. ^ a b Timothy Brook; Gregory Blue (5 September 2002). China and Historical Capitalism: Genealogies of Sinological Knowledge. Cambridge University Press. p. 136. ISBN 978-0-521-52591-6.
  7. ^ Levenson, Schurmann, Joseph, Franz (1969). China-An Interpretive History: From the Beginnings to the Fall of Han. London, England: Regents of the University of California. pp. 34–36. ISBN 0-520-01440-5.
  8. ^ "History of the Zhou Dynasty". China Education Center Limited. Retrieved 17 September 2015.
  9. ^ Gernet, Jacques (1964). Ancient China – from beginnings to Empire. London: Faber & Faber. pp. 99, 105–6, 115, 122.
  10. ^ Loewe, Michael (2006). The Government of Qin and Han Empires. Indianapolis: Hackett. pp. 21, 37, 41.
  11. ^ Lewis, Mark (2007). The Early Chinese Empires. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 53.
  12. ^ Barnett, Robert (2008) What were the conditions regarding human rights in Tibet before democratic reform? in: Authenticating Tibet: Answers to China’s 100 Questions, pp. 81–83. Eds. Anne-Marie Blondeau and Katia Buffetrille. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-24464-1 (cloth); ISBN 978-0-520-24928-8 (paper)
  13. ^ Childs, Geoff. 2003. "Polyandry and population growth in a Historical Tibetan Society", History of the Family, pp.423–428
  14. ^ Samuel, Geoffrey (Feb., 1982) Tibet as a Stateless Society and Some Islamic Parallels The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 215–229
  15. ^ Melvyn Goldstein, On the Nature of Tibetan Peasantry, The Tibet journal, Vol, XIII, n 1, 1988, 61–65 Citation : "I did not argue in the paper in question that the Tibetan political system of the 20th century should be categorized as a feudal system, and in fact, have specifically rejected that argument in dissertation and in a later paper in which I argued that Tibet possessed a centralized type of state."
  16. ^ John Whitney Hall, "Feudalism in Japan—a reassessment," Comparative studies in Society and History (1962) 5#1 pp: 15–51 in JSTOR
  17. ^ Karl Friday, "The Futile Paradigm: In Quest of Feudalism in Early Medieval Japan," History Compass 8.2 (2010): 179–196.
  18. ^ H Lévy-Ullmann "The Law of Scotland" (1925) 37 Juridical Review 370-91, quoted in Hector MacQueen, "Private Law, National Identity and the Case of Scotland" (2012) p 12 online
  19. ^ Thomas Douglas Selkirk (1805) Observations on the Present State of the Highlands of Scotland pp.31–54,
  20. ^ Boyle, Alan E. (2002). Human Rights and Scots Law. Hart Publishing. p. 287.
  21. ^ J. V. Beckett, A History of Laxton: England's Last Open Field Village (Oxford, 1989), p. 271.
  22. ^ A. H. Ewen and Allan R. de Carteret, The Fief of Sark (Guernsey: Guernsey Press, 1969)

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