Anyone who has taken middle school social studies will have learned about feudalism, the political hallmark, ostensibly, of the middle ages. It’s common knowledge that feudalism and the Medieval era go hand in hand, right? I will therefore forgive your incredulousness when I say that feudalism didn’t exist. In fact, feudalism is a later interpretation of the medieval socioeconomic structures which was then read back into said era. There were no hierarchies, no fiefs or vassals, no “subinfeudation,” and no manorialism. It is, in short, all made-up. Allow me to explain.
The term “feudalism” was invented by scholars during the 16th and 17th centuries; the term was never used during the Medieval era. While there is nothing wrong with developing terms to describe socioeconomic structures and ideologies of bygone times–the word “Medieval,” used by us moderns to describe the time period between the ancient and early modern periods respectively, for example–problems arise when we read our own modern presuppositions into the past or layer so many definitions onto such a term that it confuses more than clarifies.
It’s important to note that the scholars who studied a collection of documents related to Roman law — known as the Libri Feudorum, or “The Book of Fiefs” — were more interested in extracting legal principles, not getting their history correct. In formulating a legal understanding of the time period, they constructed a model based on the Libri Feudorum. From there, many of the key ideas we’ve come to associate with feudalism were incorporated by legal scholars: feudal hierarchies, for example. All resulting scholarship on the topic of feudalism has thus been based on incorrect interpretations. The blame should not be cast on the historians of the time because, as with any discipline, history has evolved over time. Those studying the documents did not have the scientific tools contemporary historians do.
I love the medieval period. it’s one of my favorite historical periods, and it shocks me that so many scholars breeze over this period, insisting in the face of countervailing evidence that it was a dark, scientifically backward, unprogressive era. Continuing to teach debunked medieval constructs, such as feudalism, does not bode well for the future of medieval studies. Fortunately, the winds are changing and the discipline is reaching a wider interested audience. I can only hope that mainstream historians will soon jettison this incorrect socioeconomic construct for good.