To begin: Feudalism is a fiction, the creation of an ahistorical imagination attempting to grapple with contemporary concerns. And its origin lies with the origin of another fiction – the idea that there was a “medieval period”.
The most universal of the “regulative fictions” which historians employ to make some order out of a chaotic past is “periodization,” by which we cut the continuous thread of time into manageable lengths, and then do our best to present such divisions as natural rather than contrived. (Peter Novick, That Noble Dream, 16)
Let me repeat for emphasis: all periodizations are fictions. They are anachronistic creations imposed on the past. Novick, as I understand the quote above, would have us believe that they are simply necessary contrivances which historians create, and which they do not really believe. Novick is an eminent historian; his formulation is probably how most, even most historians, tend to assume periodization works.
They are wrong. Periodizations are not our servants but our masters, and the creation and utilization of periodization is necessarily a political act. In her very difficult but brilliant book Periodization and Sovereignty, Kathleen Davis has recently shown that the idea of a “medieval” age opposed to the “modern”(1) is a product of English juristic disputes over the location and possession of sovereignty in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, responding to the problems created by the English Civil War and the decapitation of Charles I. The primary method by which these jurists distinguished between themselves and the past, i.e. between royal and parliamentary authority, was to reify the idea of “feudalism”. But what they (and four hundred years of subsequent scholarship) referred to as “feudalism” is derived from a collection of texts called the Libri feudorum (Books of Fiefs), a private, “eclectic collection of treatises, statutes, and northern Italian legislation regarding fiefs… accumulated in various recensions throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.”(2) Thus, the Libri feudorum did not describe a general system, or even a specific one. But the jurists found the Libri to be useful, as it allowed them to separate authoritarian monarchy as an arbitrary, feudal, “medieval” form of government, as opposed to the parliamentary, pluralistic, “modern” one.
The reification of feudalism and the creation of the medieval in the seventeenth century is not simply a distortion of our view of the past; it created a meme that is deeply embedded in our culture, one which has been put to rather nefarious purposes. As Timothy Mitchell discusses in Rule of Experts,(3) when the British took control of Egypt in 1882, they determined that “under the laws of the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled Cairo since 1517, all land was considered property of the state.”(4) Such a system was (to the report’s authors) not based in an abstract body of law, but in the personal, tyrannical will of an absolute ruler, and thus patently inimical to the conception of private property, which was seen as the cornerstone of (European) civilization. The ‘modern’ European conception of property directly opposed individual and arbitrary—that is to say ‘medieval’—coercive power, of which the state ownership of land was one facet. Consequently, the imposition of “law based on private rights represented a rupture with the previous world of arbitrary and despotic power.”(5) The British report advanced the argument that the Ottoman Empire’s failure to evolve systems of private property ownership was a clear sign of the backwardness of the Muslim East and a clear indicator of the benefits offered by colonial rule. As Mitchell puts it, to the colonizers, “Law could claim to be universal, and thus nonarbitrary, only by appearing as the expression of civilization.”(6) The expression of modern, western, European civilization, of course—what other sort was there? So the artificial and political creation of the periodization “medieval” and its memetic bond to feudalism was also used for political ends.
But let’s come back to how the creation of “medieval” has distorted our view of the past. To list every consequence would far exceed the word limit here, but let’s look at an easy one: if the medieval ended with modernity, it must have begun. But where? The historiographic discussion over the origins of “medieval Europe” is generally known as “the debate over the year 1000.”
As with so many themes within recent works on medieval topics, the interest in the centrality of the year 1000 originated in the work of Marc Bloch. Bloch and his influence is worth several threads of their own, but the work in question here is his two volume Feudal Society, where he placed the two centuries on either side of the turn of the millennium as pivotal to European history. Ignoring the four centuries after the fall of the Western Empire, Bloch begins Feudal Society by describing the “barbarian” invasions of the ninth century (Norsemen, Saracens, Magyars). But Bloch argued that thisage of invasions was not simply the destruction of the old. It was also was the driving force behind something new, a political revolution that created what he called the first feudal age. Carolingian power, such as it was, fragmented as local populations sought protection from nearby strongmen. These local potentates derived their authority from their strength and wielded it through the monopolistic exercise of violence, dominating the peasants-turned-serfs they were in theory supposed to defend. Bloch, following the example of his predecessors, termed this relationship ‘feudal’.
The onslaught of invasions tapered off in the first decades of the second millennium for a variety of reasons. This marked the beginning of Bloch’s second feudal age, which persisted until approximately 1250. Unlike the first age, this age was not one of sudden and radical transformation, but one of adaptation and evolution. The peasantry and clergy began to seek protection from the arbitrary brutality imposed upon them by raiding parties of local knights and petty lords, first through peace-oaths and then through legal codification and the slow development of the first apparatuses of governmental power. Through shrewd political maneuvering, such power gradually accumulated in the hands of a few, and by the end of the period, the rough outline of the modern state had begun to take form. Bloch’s analysis thus placed the formation of a feudal structure, spurred by outside invasion, as the first step towards European modernity.
Bloch had done his best to present the divisions and structures created by those seventeenth century jurists as “natural rather than contrived.”
Bloch spurred a debate which went back and forth, and I can give you further reading if you wish: the most important names are Duby, Bisson, Geary. Scholars, of course, realized that the model of feudalism expressed by Bloch and then Duby, which by the 1970s was “established and authoritative” for all of Europe within both French and Anglo-American scholarship, had some problems: “the model didn’t work all that well for England where state power was strong from the Anglo-Saxon era through the Plantagenets,” “it did not really apply to Germany where lordship was seen in terms of… the advent of Grundherrshaft in tandem with political rights,” and it “was modified for Italy.”(7) Elizabeth Brown had long since argued that feudalism did not map onto any historical reality, that historians used it much too freely in order to gloss over rather than confront structural questions, and moreover that everyone was aware of these failings and persisted in using the term anyway. Brown’s insightful article had the immediate and long-lasting effects one might expect from such a powerful disciplinary critique; although medieval historians now use “feudalism” no less frequently than before, they almost always place the word within quotation marks.(8)
Although his reconstruction of the past is no longer held to be true, Bloch’s basic periodization had stuck. The “medieval” period proper, defined by the origins of “feudalism,” itself an idea created in the seventeenth century so that contemporaries could define themselves as “modern,” began around 1000, and ended around 1500. What we call “early” medieval, from ca. 500 to 1000, is ignored entirely by Bloch, and later by Bisson. It is made into a long preamble by Duby. This idea of 500–1000 as the origins of the origins of modernity is also a powerful meme in scholarship, giving us book titles like The Long Morning of Medieval Europe. Such distinctions have long been adopted in other fields, and since they do not (so they think) affect them directly, they haven’t bothered to confront the problems posed herein.
So, in the end, we see that feudalism is a lie, but it’s a lie we don’t seem to be able to keep ourselves from telling. It is a lie we tell to make ourselves seem better, and it is a lie we tell to make others seem worse.
(1) The term dates from the fourteenth century, but although it is used as a pejorative, it does not refer to a time in which the user is not living, i.e. a medieval past vs. a modern present.
(2) Davis, Periodization, 27.
(3) This is one of the best books I have ever read. Tolle, lege.
(4) Mitchell, Rule, 55.
(5) Ibid., 56.
(7) Paul Freedman, “Peasants, the Seigneurial Regime, and Serfdom in the Eleventh to Thirteenth Centuries,” inEuropean Transformations: the Long Twelfth Century,Thomas F.X. Noble and John van Engen, eds. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012), 264–265.
(8) Elizabeth Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe,” in The American Historical Review 79:4 (1974), 1063–1088. More recently, Susan Reynolds has written extensively on the problems posed by feudalism, most notably in Feifs and Vassals: Medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).