Examples of feudalism

Examples of feudalism

Examples of feudalism are helpful to fully understand feudalism and feudal society. Feudalism was practiced in many different ways, depending on location and time period, thus a high-level encompassing conceptual definition does not always provide a reader with the intimate understanding that detail of historical example provides.


12th century England

Feudalism in 12th century England was among the better structured and established in Europe at the time. However, it could be structurally complex, which is illustrated by the example of the barony of Stafford as described in a survey of knight's fees called The Black Book Exchequer (A.D 1166).

Feudalism is the exchange of land for military service, thus everything was based on what was called the knight's fee, which was the amount of money and/or military service a fief was required to pay to support one knight. Thus, either a fief could provide the service of a knight, or an equivalent amount of money to allow a lord to hire a knight.

The knight's fee value of a fief varied based on the size and resources of a particular fief. The lord of Stafford, Robert of Stafford, was responsible for 60 knight's fees for his Stafford fief. Robert sub-let 51 of those 60 knight's fees in the form of 26 sub-fiefs, the largest fief provided 6 fees, while the smallest 2/3 of a fee. Thus in all, the 26 sub-fiefs paid 51 fees. Further, some of these sub-fiefs had sub-sub-fiefs with fees of their own, and sometimes went a layer below that. In all, 78 fiefs were part of the Stafford estate, 26 of them reporting directly to Robert and the rest layers below. It was a system of tenants and leases and sub-tenants and sub-leases and so on, each layer reporting vassalage to the next layer up. The knight's fee was the common base unit of denomination. Often lords were not so much lords presiding over great estates, but managers of a network of tenants and sub-leases.

Some of the Stafford tenants were themselves lords, and this illustrates how complex the relationships of lord and vassal could become. Henry d'Oilly, who held 3 fees from Robert of Stafford, also held over 30 fees elsewhere that had been granted to him directly by the king. Thus while Henry was the vassal of his lord Robert, Henry was himself a lord and had many sub-fiefs that he also managed. It would have also been possible and not uncommon for a situation where Robert of Stafford was a vassal of Henry elsewhere, creating the condition of mutual lordship/vassalage between the two. These complex relationships invariably created loyalty problems through conflicts of interests; to resolve this the concept of a liege lord was created, which meant that the vassal was loyal to his liege lord above all others no matter what. However, even this sometimes broke down when a vassal would pledge himself to more than one liege lord.

From the perspective of the smallest land owner, multiple networks of lordship were layered on the same small plot of land. A chronicle of the time says "different lordships lay on the land in different respects". Each lord laid claim to a certain aspect of the service from the land.

11th century France

Among the complexities of feudal arrangements there existed no guarantee that contracts between lord and vassal would be honored, and feudal contracts saw little enforcement from those with greater authority. This often resulted in the wealthier and more powerful party taking advantage of the weaker. Such was (allegedly) the case of Hugh de Lusignan and his relations with his lord William V of Aquitaine. Between 1020 and 1025 Hugh wrote or possibly dictated a complaint against William and his vassals describing the unjust treatment he had received at the hands of both. Hugh describes a convoluted intermingling of loyalties that was characteristic of the period and instrumental in developing strain between nobles that resulted in competition for each other's land. According to Hugh's account William wronged him on numerous occasions, often to the benefit of William's vassals. Many of his properties suffered similar fates: seized by opponents and divided between they and William. William apparently neglected to send military aid to Hugh when necessary and dealt most unfairly in the exchange of hostages. Each time Hugh reclaimed one of his properties, William ordered him to return it to whoever had recently taken it from him. William broke multiple oaths in succession yet Hugh continued to put faith in his lord's word, to his own ruin. In his last contract with William, over possession of his uncle's castle at Chizes, Hugh dealt in no uncertain terms and with frank language:

Hugh: You are my lord, I will not accept a pledge from you, but I will simply rely on the mercy of God and yourself.
William: Give up all those claims over which you have quarreled with me in the past and swear fidelity to me and my son and I will give you your uncle's honor [Chizes] or something else of equal value in exchange for it.
Hugh: My lord, I beg you through God and this blessed crucifix which is made in the figure of Christ that you do not make me do this if you and your son were intending to threaten me with trickery.
William: On my honor and my son I will do this without trickery.
Hugh: And when I shall have sworn fidelity to you, you will demand Chizes castle of me, and if I should not turn it over to you, you will say that it is not right that I deny you the castle which I hold from you, and if I should turn it over to you, you and your son will seize it because you have given nothing in pledge except the mercy of God and yourself.
William: We will not do that, but if we should demand it of you, don't turn it over to us.

While perhaps an embellishment of the truth for the sake of Hugh's cause, and not necessarily a microcosm of the feudal system everywhere, the Agreement Between Lord and Vassal is evidence at least of corruption in feudal rule.


Portugal has its roots in a feudal state on northern Iberia: the County of Portucale, established in 868 within the Asturias-Léon kingdom. The local counts dynasty was suppressed (1071) but twenty two years later, in 1093, king Alphonse VI of Léon and Castille gave the county as a fiefdom to Henry of Burgundy (a younger Capet who was participating in the reconquista), when he married Theresa, the king’s natural daughter.

In spite of their vassal link, Henri had a remarkable autonomy, especially after his father-in law death (1109). The Portuguese independence was obtained by his son, Afonso I of Portugal when, after defeating the Muslims at the Battle of Ourique, he proclaimed himself king (1139), cutting definitively all feudal links with the kingdom of Leon.


The Swedish variant of feudalism consisted of landowners resourceful enough to commit to the maintenance a soldier with a horse in the liege lord's army; in compensation they obtained exemption from land taxation (so-called frälse, blessing). This led to a curb in the relative local democracy in the Viking era, in favor of local lords who succeeded in exercising administrative and judicial power over their less powerful neighbors. The King also depended more on such vassals and their resources.


Outside of a medieval European historical context, the concept of feudalism is normally only used by analogy (called semi-feudal), most often in discussions of Japan under the shoguns, and, sometimes, nineteenth-century Ethiopia. However, some have taken the feudalism analogy further, seeing it in places as diverse as Ancient Egypt, Parthian empire, India, to the American South of the nineteenth century. In addition some modern states still retain some vestiges of historic feudalism.

Pakistan and India

The Zamindari System is often referred to as a feudal-like system. Originally the Zamindari System was introduced in the pre-colonial period to collect taxes from peasants, and it continued during colonial British rule. After independence Zamindari was abolished in India and East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh), but it is still present today in Pakistan. In modern times historians have become very reluctant to classify other societies into European models and today it is rare for Zamindari to be described as feudal by academics; it still done in popular usage, however, but only for pejorative reasons to express disfavour, typically by critics of the Zamindari system.


Prachanda, the leader of communists in Nepal, has frequently directed his criticism against feudals.


Whether or not Tibet constituted a feudal social system or if peasants can be considered serfs is still debated. Studied districts of Tibet between the 17th and 20th century show evidence of a striated society with land ownership laws and tax responsibility that resemble European feudal systems. However, scholars have pointed out key differences that make the comparison contested and only limited evidence from that period is available for study. Scholar Geoff Samuel further argued that Tibet even the early 20th century did not constitute a single state but rather a collection of districts and a legal system of Lhasa with particular land and tax laws did not extend over the entire country.


In People's Republic of China, official views of history are based on Marxism, and attempts have thus been made to describe Chinese historical periods in Marxist terminology. Chinese history from the Zhou Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty is thus described as the 'feudal period'. In order to do this, new concepts have to be invented such as bureaucratic feudalism, which most Western historians would consider a contradiction in terms.

As a result of this Marxist definition, feudal, as used in a Chinese context, is commonly a pejorative term meaning 'old unscientific'. This usage is common among both academic and popular writers from Mainland China, even those who are anti-Marxist. The use of the term feudal to describe a period in Chinese history was also common among Western historians of China of the 1950s and 1960s, but became increasingly rare after the 1970s. The current prevailing consensus among Western historians is that using the term 'feudal' to describe Chinese history confuses more than it clarifies, as it assumes strong commonalities between Chinese and European history that may not exist after the Qin Dynasty.

The proper "feudal" period in China should be the period from the Zhou Dynasty 周 to Qin Dynasty 秦 (1122 BC -- 256 BC) by which time the state of Qin 秦国 had conquered all other states and established the empire. After King Fa (Posthumous Name: Wu) of Zhou had defeated the Yin House of Shang Dynasty 商, the King created five hereditary ranks (Gong 公, Hou 侯, Bo 伯, Zi 子 and Nan 男) for nobles very much similar to the current European nobility system (Duke, Marquees, Earl/Count, Viscount, and Baron). For example, the Lord of Qin 秦伯 (state of Qin) was given the title of "Bo" (equivalent to Earl), the Lord of Chu 楚子 (state of Chu) was a "Zi" (equivalent to a Viscount), Lord of Qi 齐侯 (state of Qi) was a "Hou" (equivalent to a Marquees) and Lord of Song 宋公 (state of Song) (who was part of the Zhou Royal Family) was given the title of "Gong" (Duke). It should be note that ancient Chinese texts can sometimes cause confusions as it was also considered to be polite to call all nobles as "Gong" (and later "Wang" 王 (King) as the Zhou House lost its grip on power) irrelevant to their actual rank. The sons of the King were called "Wang zi" 王子 (Son of the King), and sons of the nobles were called "Gong zi" 公子 (Son of the Duke, again "Gong" here means noble, but not the rank of Gong). The term "Gong zi" in modern Chinese now became a polite way to call any person's son.

One has to be careful with the term "state" 国 used in classical Chinese, it specifically refers to the portion of land controlled by a feudal lord, or when referring to a city -- the capital city of the land. It does not have the meaning of a country in the modern sense.

The Zhou Dynasty can be seen as a true feudal system as it is in many respects very similar to the system used in Medieval Europe. Each lords were given a state/land, and politics was strongly centred around the noble households. In fact, the notion of "prime minister" 太宰 in ancient Chinese came from the feudal time meaning the "chief housekeeper" or "butler" of the noble household. Each feudal states were governed independently with tax systems, currency and legal systems set by each individual households, but the nobles were required to pay regular homage to the Zhou Kings as an act of oath of fealty. At the time of war the nobles were required to provide armed service to the King. Approaching the end of Zhou dynasty, the power of the King dwindled while the power of the nobles had risen. This resulted in what is known as the Spring and Autumn 春秋 and Warring States 战国 periods when the nobles fought each other constantly for supremacy. This had resulted in the claps of the noble ranking system, and during the late Warring States Period all major nobles had proclaimed them-selves the title of "Wang" 王 (King).

The Wang Zheng of Qin 嬴政 (note that at the time the Bo of Qin was self-proclaimed as "Wang of Qin") eventually removed the Zhou household and defeated all other feudal lords and funded the first empire. To the horror of the people at the time, he completely abolished the feudal system in favour of the centrally governed imperial bureaucratic system which was used in China ever since until the foundation of republic in 20th century. Noble titles including that of "Wang" was frequently used in the imperial periods, but its function were mostly honour titles that differed very much from that of the Zhou times.

Arguably the first emperor of Qin had accomplished in China what Napoleon Bonaparte had partially failed to do in Europe. And indeed, King of Qin at the time was seen among the nobles as public enemy number one, and his abolishment of the feudal system was listed by scholars at the time among the ten "crimes against humanity" he had committed after the fall of the short lived Qin empire. However the central bureaucratic system he had established had obvious attractions to future rulers of the Han empire 汉, and it was there to stay for the next two millennia.


The Tokugawa shogunate was a feudal-like military dictatorship of Japan established in the 17th century lasting until 1868. It marks a period often referred to loosely as 'feudal Japan', otherwise known as the Edo period. While modern historians have become very reluctant to classify other societies into European models, in Japan, the system of land tenure and a vassal receiving tenure in exchange for an oath of fealty is very close to what happened in parts of medieval Europe, and thus the term is sometimes used in connection with Japan.


The system of land tenure in Scotland was until recently overwhelmingly feudal in nature. In theory, this meant that the land was held under The Crown as ultimate feudal superior. Historically, The Crown would make a grant of land in return for military or other services and the grantees would in turn make sub-grants for other services and so on. Those making grants - the "superiors" - retained a legal interest in the land ("dominium directum"), and so a hierarchical structure was created with each property having a number of owners, co-existing simultaneously. Only one of these, the vassal, has what in normal language would be regarded as ownership of the property ("dominium utile").

The Abolition of Feudal Tenure etc. (Scotland) Act 2000 abolished the feudal system of land tenure in Scotland and replaced it with a system of outright ownership of land. Since the Act became fully effective from 28 November 2004, the vassal owns the land outright, and superiority interests disappeared. The right of feudal superiors to enforce conditions was ended, subject to certain saving provisions of a restricted nature. Feu duty was abolished although compensation may be payable. The delay between Royal assent and coming into force was a result of the great number of transitional arrangements needed to be put into place before final abolition and because of the close relation that the 2000 Act has to the Title Conditions Act 2003.

Modern England

Unique in England, the village of Laxton in Nottinghamshire continues to retain some vestiges of the feudal system, where the land is still farmed using the open field system. The feudal court now only meets annually, with its authority now restricted to management of the farmland.


The tiny island of Sark, in the Channel Islands, was the last feudal state in Europe, up until April 9, 2008. The island was a fiefdom of the larger nearby island of Guernsey and administered independently by a Seigneur, who was a vassal to the land's owner - the Queen of the United Kingdom.

Sark's ruling body voted on 4th October 2006 to replace the remaining tenement seats in Chief Pleas with a fully elected democratic government, abolishing the Seigneur. This was implemented on April 9, 2008.

Great Lakes

The first Europeans to travel to the Great Lakes region of Africa often described the social system there as feudal. The dozens of small states in the region consisted of a ruling class led by a monarch which controlled the lands upon which the great bulk of the population grew bananas or herded cattle. In modern times historians have become very reluctant to classify other societies into European models and today it is rare for these kingdoms to be described as feudal.


Pronoia, the 11th-century system of land grants in the Byzantine empire, makes a useful contrast to feudal tenure in the European West. This system was adopted by the Ottoman Empire, which called their land grants timar and the recipients of the land grants timariots.


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