Feudalism can be defined as the identification of landed property with sovereignty – sovereignty over a parcel of land which becomes a private hereditary possession and an asset to the family.
The king on receiving his fief or feud (feudalism) or estate was entrusted with sovereignty over all persons living on it. He became their law-maker, their commander and the judge.
Feudalism had its origin in medieval Europe between the 11th and 13th centuries. It was the name given to the form of society and government of the time. However, the advent of industrial revolution in Europe brought the demise of feudalism.
Characteristics of Feudalism
- Holding of land: Vassals hold land in trust for the Lords.
- Bond: There was evidence of a close personal bond between the lord and the vassal.
- Sovereignty: This was the rights of sovereignty which the holder of an estate had over those living on it.
- Fief or feud: An estate of this nature, whether big or small, was called a fief or feud, hence the term feudalism.
- Obligations of the vassals: Some of the obligations of the vassals to their lords were military service for at least, forty days a year, rent for his land and house work at the lord’s field also for some number of days in a year.
- Death of a vassal: If a vassal died without heirs, his property reverted to the Lord.
- Guilty of treason: If a vassal was guilty of treason, the lord might claim his possession by forfeiture.
- Land ownership: This system is based on land ownership.
- Land control: Ownership and control of land is vested in the king, monarch or Emperor.
- Annual tributes: The serfs (tenants) pay their landlords annual tributes in money or kind.
- Protection: The overlords are duty bound to offer protection to their serfs
- The king or monarch: This is the lawmaker, commander and judge over his vassals or serfs.
Political Conception of Feudalism
- Individual’s relation to land: This tended to determine 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 governmental rights with land tenure: The landlord had some important governmental rights 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
- Order and personal loyalty: Feudalism gave some order and avoided total chaos by bringing together 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: Feudalism succeeded in keeping alive the spirit of liberty in medieval Europe.
Demerits of Feudalism
- 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 landowners, 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 outright 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.