Feudalism: Definition, Features, Merits & Demerits
Meaning of Feudalism
Feudalism is a system of government based on the ownership of land. Feudalism is based on a system of land holding.
It is a system of holding land by giving services in return to its owner. In other words, feudalism compels the serfs to give services to the landowner (the lords) in return for holding or using the land of the lord.
Feudalism is therefore a political system in which the land-owners exercise dominion and control over the rest of the society. Thus, the ownership and control of-land is central to feudal system.
Historical Development Of Feudalism
Feudalism began in Europe from the time of the fall of the Roman Empire. The Barbarians had invaded Britain and overthrown the Roman Empire in the 5th century and introduced the feudal system.
Feudalism itself collapsed with the advent of the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the 17th century. In many third world countries, African, most especially, it was the social system upon which colonialism was built.
Central to the organization of the feudal society is land. That is, every aspect of life under feudalism revolves around land. Although trading and commerce also flourish, land is the major source of wealth and influence.
The feudal society was organized hierarchically with the king himself being at the top of the pyramid. All lands belonged to the king. The feudal hierarchy had four estates, namely, the nobility, the clergy, the merchant and the serf or peasant in that order. But it was difficult, if not impossible, to move from one estate to another because of the rigidity of social barriers.
The pyramidal organization of society was founded on the provision of services so much so that each individual tenant was compelled to provide some services to his lanlerd for using his land.
One of the ways by which the king ordered society was to give out land to the Nobles (usually knights and barons) on the condition that they would provide services including military force and equipment for about six months a year. So each of them provided foot soldiers and guns and ammunition for the king. The king also received cash and non-financial gifts from the Nobles.
The Nobles too allowed people to use the land on the condition that they could be called upon to serve as foot soldiers or to provide some other services.
But the major division of society was into two categories, namely, feudal lords and serfs. The serf was compelled to work for the landlord either by farming the landlord’s land using his own implements or by giving to the landlord part of his product in kind or by paying both kinds of ground rent.
If the serf failed to pay the ground rent, he could be sold in order to recover the rent. But unlike the situation under slavery, the serf could not be killed for not being able to pay his rent or render services. Thus, the serf was personally dependent upon the landlord.
Nevertheless, the entire history of feudalism was that of bitter struggle between the feudal lords and the peasants. The revolt of the peasants led to the collapse of feudalism. In the struggle, the serfs were supported by the capitalists who required the free labour of workers freed from serfdom and a national market which required the removal of all artificial barriers.
Features of Feudalism
Political Conception of Feudalism
- Individual’s relation to land: This tended to deteimine the individual’s political rights and duties.
- Public duties and obligations: These are what the citizens owe to the state but they are turned into private and personal services which he owes to his lord in return for land, which he has received from him. The state no longer depends upon its citizens for the execution of public duties.
- Protection: The vassal had no privilege as a citizen; he needed a lord if he wanted protection and a place in the social system.
- Fusion of government alrights with land tenure: The landlord had some important govemment alrights over the vassal residing on his land. The lord could decide coining his own money, property, title, make military levies, collect his own taxes and hold his own independent courts of justice.
- The substitution of personal loyalty to a superior: This brings about the tie of common citizenship.
- The state was disintegrated: The state no longer functioned as a whole but in semi-independent parts. It was not possible for the central authority to act directly on all individuals alike throughout a common territory.
Merits of Feudalism | Pros of Feudal System
- Order and personal loyalty: Feudalism gave some order and avoided total chaos by bringing to gether the strong sentiments of personal loyalty connected with the possession of land.
- Framework: Feudalism provided a temporary framework of order on which a true and reliable national life could grow.
- Self-reliance: It fostered among the big landlords, self-reliance and love of personal independence.
- Spirit of liberty: Feudallsm succeeded in keeping alive the spirit of liberty in medieval Europe.
Demerits of Feudalism | Cons of Feudal System
- Inability to form strong national government: This was because a country was split up into a large number of independent entities.
- State of anarchy: Since the private ownership of land by a feudal lord was the basis of social order, anarchy was inevitable in such a system.
- Confusion: It was argued in some quarters that the system was based on confusion and was badly organised.
- Disintegration of state: The state was roughly disintegrated and could no longer act as a whole but in semi-independent parts.
- Disobedience to common law: This was because personal obedience and subordination was founded upon land ownership.
- Weak central government: Relevant governmental powers were held by large land owners, making the central government to be weak and was imperfectly ordered in practice.
- Confusion of public and private rights: Feudalism created confusion between private and public rights. Private rights superseded public rights.
- It weakened the sovereignty of the State: This is because every lord wielded some political power.
- Constant wars: There were constant wars among the lords for the search for more territories.
- Exploitation: The system was purely based on outlight exploitation. The slaves/serfs/vassals and peasants were used and dumped.
- Injustice: It encouraged injustice. The lord presided over disagreements between himself and the land tenants.
- Domination: Feudalism encouraged domination because it produced very powerful lords who controlled and dictated the socio-economic and political lives of the tenants.
- The system was undemocratic: The tenants were not allowed to choose their leaders.
- No Security of land ownership: The land being worked upon by a peasant or slave could be taken away from him and given to another or the lord could lose it because of war.
- No personal initiative and creativity: The tenants were not allowed to think out better ways of doing things but made to dance to the dictates of the lords.