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Feudal society

Feudal society is a sometimes debated term used to describe the medieval social order of western and central Europe and sometimes Japan (particularly in the 14th to 16th centuries) characterised by the legal subjection of a large part of the peasantry to a hereditary landholding elite exercising administrative and judicial power on the basis of reciprocal private undertakings.

The term's validity is questioned by many medieval historians who consider the description "feudal" appropriate only to the specifically voluntary and personal bonds of mutual protection, loyalty and support among members of the administrative, military or ecclesiastical elite, to the exclusion of involuntary obligations attached to tenure of "unfree" land. This stricter concept is discussed under Feudalism, and the bonds which it excludes under Manorialism.

In the broader conception of feudal society, as developed in the 1930s by the French Annaliste historian Marc Bloch, the prevailing features include:

  1. The absence of a strong central authority, and the diffusion of governmental power through the granting of administrative and legal authority over particular lands (fiefs) by higher lords (including the king) to vassals sworn by voluntary oath to support or serve them, usually (though not exclusively) by military means.
  2. The obligation attached to particular holdings of land that the peasant household should supply the lord with specified labour services or a part of its output (or cash in lieu thereof) subject to the custom of the holding.

Features common among feudal societies, but which do not necessarily define them, include:

  1. An overwhelmingly agrarian economy, with limited money exchange, necessitating the dispersion of political authority and the substitution of arrangements involving economic support from local resources;
  2. The strength of the Church as an ally and counterpart to the civil-military structure, supported by its right to a share (tithe) of society's output as well as substantial landholdings, and endowed with specific authority and responsibility for moral and material welfare.
  3. The existence of structures and phenomena not of themselves explicitly feudal (urban and village organisations, royal executive power, free peasant holdings, financial and commercial activity) but each incorporated into the whole.

Alongside such broad similarities, it is important to note the divergences both within and between feudal societies (in forms or complexity of noble association, the extent of peasant dependency or the importance of money payments) as well as the changes which occurred over time within the overall structure (as in Bloch's characterisation of the 11th-century onset of a "second feudal age")

In particular, one should avoid envisaging the social order in terms of a regular "feudal pyramid", with each man bound to one superior lord and the rank of each clearly defined, in a regular chain of allegiances extending from the king at the top to the peasantry at the bottom: aside from the contrast between free and unfree obligation, allegiance was often given to more than one lord, while an individual might possess attributes of more than one rank.

Nor should the medieval theory of the "three estates" of society - "those who make war, those who pray and those who labour" (bellatores, oratores, and laboratores) be considered a full description of the social order: while those excluded from the first two came over time to be counted among the third, nobles and clerics alike assumed administrative functions in the feudal state, while financial support was relied upon increasingly as a substitute for direct military service.

While few would deny that most of France, England, parts of Spain and the Low Countries, western and central Germany and (at least for a time) northern and central Italy satisfied Bloch's criteria over much of the period, the concept remains of greatest use as an interpretive device for comparative study of local phenomena, rather than as a blanket definition of the medieval social order.

Historical development

Reaching its most developed form in the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem in the 12th and 13th centuries, feudal society evolved in its developed form in the northern French heartland of the Carolingian monarchy of the 8th-10th centuries, but has its antecedents also in late Roman practice.

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