This was a shocker.  In sedesdraconis‘s LJ I found a reference to an article by Melissa Snell which reveals that there’s no such thing as ‘feudalism’.

The usual understanding of feudalism is that it comprised a hierarchical system in which near-sovereign control over land was traded for military service… essentially a way of ordering society when strong central government was not possible.  This turns out to be not the case.

The medievals never talked about ‘feudalism’; the concept was the invention of 16C French and Italian scholars, attempting to understand a 12C text, the Libri Feudorum.  Unfortunately they bungled the job.  They imported contemporary notions into the document (especially the idea that ‘fiefs’ were lands held by nobles), and they mistook the earlier writers’ own speculation for fact. 

Their interpretation solidified into received wisdom, till it was blown apart by Susan Reynold’s 1994 book Fiefs and Vassals.  Snell’s review is rather short on what’s right if feudalism is wrong.  But these seem to be the main points.

  • There was an immense amount of variation.  The worst part about the ‘feudalism’ concept is the implied uniformity.  Land could be held in all sorts of ways, and people’s ideas of rights and property were different from ours.
  • The implied class structure– serfs, clerics, knights– is hopelessly simplistic.  The armed forces were by no means limited to fighting nobles or knights.
  • Most grants of land weren’t based on any agreement to provide military service, though they might be based on service already provided.  There was generally no idea that a grant could be revoked if the grantee broke an oath of fidelity (if it was even required).
  • Far from being lawless, medieval society expected general obedience to the king.
  • Serfs’ relationship to their lord- manorialism– was really a separate concept, not considered at the time a form of vassalage.

Some additional useful information and criticism are found in these two reviews of Reynolds’ book:

There’s a lesson here somewhere about the dissemination of new insights.  This might be a very academic dispute, but I find it remarkable that I’ve never run into it in 34 years… the time since Reynolds’ predecessor Elizabeth Brown published her critique.  You’d think someone would tell the public that the textbook understanding of the Middle Ages is just wrong.

 The important question is of course… what about the conworlders?  I welcome the opportunity to rethink some aspects of Almean history.  In general we should avoid not merely reproducing the fiefs-for-service idea, but exclusively European models.  Bernard Lewis’s From Babel to Dragomans, which I recently mentioned, has some good descriptions of Islamic models.  China looked pretty different too, not really having what we think of as an aristocracy.