9 Characteristics of Feudalism

Feudalism was a form of political, economic, social and cultural organization that emerged in Europe in the fifth century after the fall of the Roman Empire and was based on land tenure.

In this type of organization, the feudal lords (landowners) had their servants in the rural workers.

Check below the main characteristics of feudalism.

1. The feudal society was divided into three social classes

Feudal society contemplated three social strata: nobility , clergy, and serfs .

The  clergy were responsible for cherishing the spirituality of the feudal community.

The nobility was composed by the king and the nobles.

The nobles, also called feudal lords, made constant negotiations with the king in exchange of lands and were responsible for managing the political, economic and legal powers.

If, on the one hand, the majority of the population was illiterate, the children of the nobles were the only ones entitled to literacy.

The servants , in turn, constituted the greater part of the peasant community and were generally farm workers.



2. There was no mobility between social classes

The social strata that existed in feudalism were considered sealed .

For this reason, those who were born in a certain social class would most likely remain in it until the end of life.

3. The lower social classes were subordinated to the higher classes

The servants, the lower social class of feudalism, generally received feudal lords for cultivation.

The yield was made with the sole intention that the lands were cultivated and that, with that, a relation of servitude of the servants to the nobles was created.

This made servants develop a bond of allegiance, obedience, and subordination. 

These lands were owned by the feudal lords and did not at any moment become servants.

4. There were relations of suzerainty among the nobles

When the gift of goods was made from one noble to another, the author of the gift was called a suzerain.

This donation of goods does not necessarily indicate the donation of land. Often it was granted the use of certain agricultural equipment, the exemption of the payment of certain taxes, etc.

To the nobleman who was benefited by the gift, was assigned the designation of vassal .

As a form of retribution, it was up to the vassal to take an oath of allegiance to the suzerain, pledging himself, for example, to fight in his army if summoned and to help him financially if necessary.


5. The feudal economy was based on self-sufficient agricultural production

During feudalism, product marketing was not a common practice.

The economy of the fief, the main economic unit, was based on subsistence farming , that is, farmers produced to secure their own livelihood.

This production was self-sufficient and therefore no recourse to other producers; the amount of what was produced by the farmers was enough for them. Any and all surplus production was taken by the feudal lords.

Since there was no monetary exchange, the fiefs exchanged among themselves the products which they needed but did not produce.


6. The legal, political and economic powers were monopolized by the feudal lord

Although the king was the highest authority, the feudal lords (also called nobles) were given many privileges by the monarchy. These privileges were compensated with military aid of the noble ones with the king.

Thus, they came to have decision-making power over legal, political and economic issues.

The nobles had, for example, the autonomy to create laws, to administer justice, to form private armies, and to declare war.

7. The Catholic Church had a strong influence during feudalism

The Catholic Church was the most powerful feudal institution .

It exerted great influence on the economic scene of the fief due to the fact of owning many lands.

This influence was reflected in the thinking of the people, who considered that the priests established a connection between God and men.

8. The acquisition of land could be derived from wars

When land acquisition did not take place by the king’s or feudal lords, nor by inheritance, it was common for them to occur through wars.

Sometimes the reason for these wars was that people who were already landowners wanted to expand their territories. 

Another hypothesis was due to the end of the servants’ bondage to the feudal lords.

The fate of the land, initially granted to the servant by the feudal lord, was often decided through a war.

9. Servants paid taxes and taxes

The relation of nobles to servants was based on exploitation.

The servants worked in the lands given by the nobility and because of this, they were forced to pay taxes.

Some of the major taxes paid were:

  • Capitation : tax paid by each member of the family;
  • Tithing : 10% of the production was paid to the church;
  • Talha : part of the production should be delivered to the feudal lord;
  • Banality : payment that allowed the use of the property of the fiefdom (mills, furnaces, roads, etc.).

Curiosities about feudalism

  • Feudalism began in the west and central part of Europe, and spread to other parts of the continent;
  • The kings believed that they received power from God as monarchs; 
  • The feudal lords lived in fortified castles situated in the middle of their lands;
  • The nobles used to solve their personal questions through duels;
  • Women had no right in feudal society. They could not even choose who and when to marry;
  • Feudalism prevailed in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. During this period, hygiene habits were so precarious that diseases such as the Black Death spread quickly, almost decimating the European continent.

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