Feudalism and Serfdom


Feudalism is, broadly speaking, a synonym for "politically decentralized". In a centralized kingdom, the monarch effects strong direct control over his entire state; in a decentralized kingdom, the monarch's power is limited by the strength of local lords, who have significant autonomy (even though they are officially subject to the monarch's rule). The term feudal can therefore be applied to any state that exists as a collection of significantly autonomous regions.

Serfdom is an institution in which agricultural workers (known historically as "peasants") are legally bound to the land they work upon. (In this context, an institution is a "custom" or "way of doing things".)

Feudalism and serfdom were both prevalent in Western Europe for roughly the duration of the Middle Ages (ca. 500-1500), after which they gradually faded.3 (In Western history, serfdom is sometimes called "manorialism" or "seignorialism", since the plot of land to which serfs were bound was called a manor or seigneury.) They also developed in various other regions of the world, at various points in history.

Feudal System

As noted above, feudalism is a synonym for "politically decentralized". The term is often used, however, to denote the specific type of feudalism that prevailed in medieval Western Europe, in which nobles granted tracts of land to lesser nobles in exchange for services. These services might be military, political, or religious in nature.K190-91,2

The feudal system gave rise to a vast pyramid of allegiance. In each case, the one who grants the land is called the lord, while the one who accepts the land (and promises service) is called the vassal.2 A piece of land granted under the feudal system is known as a fief.

The king officially ruled the entire kingdom. Though terminology varies, dukes typically occupied the first layer of nobility under the king. Counts and earls were found roughly in the middle of the feudal pyramid, barons and knights at the bottom.

The feudal system was supported by serfs, who performed the actual farming of all these parcels of land. Serfs retained a fraction of their production, while the remainder travelled up the pyramid.


Feudalism and serfdom began to emerge as the Roman Empire crumbled, leaving Western Europe to be ruled by a patchwork of small kingdoms established by Germanic warlords. In these chaotic times, a king could not hope to maintain strong centralized control over his entire kingdom; he was forced to delegate power to local nobles, and the feudal system developed as a practical method of doing so. Serfdom emerged as peasants were forced to sacrifice their freedom in exchange for protection.A230,1

By ca. 1000, much of Western Europe was governed by a mosaic of tall feudal pyramids, though some functioned more smoothly than others. The system was most successful in England and France; in other regions (notably Germany), the hierarchy was weaker and less clearly organized. As political conditions stabilized, monarchs increasingly gathered up the power distributed throughout their feudal pyramids. Since this could be done more efficiently in regions with well-organized pyramids, England and France emerged as strongly centralized states by the end of the medieval period, while Germany remained splintered into many small powers.A231,K190-91

Not everyone in medieval Western Europe belonged to the feudal system. Clergy and religious orders (monks and nuns) were theoretically independent of secular rulers (being subject instead to the authority of the Church), though kings sometimes achieved political dominance over local clergy and abbeys, thus effectively placing them within the feudal framework. The same is true of cities, which reappeared in Western Europe in the later Middle Ages; some remained separate from the feudal system, while others were drawn in by powerful monarchs.A227-31


Feudalism and serfdom both declined as a result of the stability and prosperity of the later medieval and Early Modern periods. Strongly centralized states returned to Western Europe, thus rendering feudalism obsolete. Meanwhile, peasants increasingly demanded and obtained freedom to live and work where they pleased.

Another factor in the decline of feudalism and serfdom was the revival of a money-based economy. Money must be minted and standardized, and thus requires a prosperous and stable political environment. With the fall of Rome, Western Europe reverted to a barter economy, in which payments were made in land, goods, and/or services. The revival of money enabled the return of wage labour, converting feudal warriors and serfs into paid soldiers and peasants, who could switch occupations if desired.K190-91

1 - "Manorialism", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 2009.
2 - "Feudalism", Encarta. Accessed July 2009.
3 - "Serfdom", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 2009.