Term that emerged in the 17th century that has been used to describe economic, legal, political, social, and economic relationships in the European Middle Ages. Derived from the Latin word feudum (fief) but unknown to people of the Middle Ages, the term “feudalism” has been used most broadly to refer to medieval society as a whole, and in this way may be understood as a socio-economic system that is often called manorialism. It has been used most narrowly to describe relations between lords and vassals that involve the exchange of land for military service. Feudalism in this sense is thought to have emerged in a time of political disorder in the 11th century as a means to restore order, and it was later a key element in the establishment of strong monarchies. “Feudalism” also has been applied, often inappropriately, to non-Western societies where institutions similar to those of medieval Europe are thought to have existed. The many ways “feudalism” has been used have drained it of specific meaning, however, and caused some scholars to reject it as a useful concept for understanding medieval society.
Learn more about feudalism with a free trial on Britannica.com.
System by which land was held by tenants from lords. In England and France, the king was lord paramount and master of the realm. He granted land to his lords, who granted land to their vassals and so on down to the occupying tenant. Tenures were divided into free and unfree. Free tenure included tenure in chivalry, as in the case of knight service, and socage (tenure by agricultural service fixed in amount and kind). The main type of unfree tenancy was villenage, a limited form of servitude. Seealso feudalism, fief, landlord and tenant, manorialism.
Learn more about feudal land tenure with a free trial on Britannica.com.
The term derives from late Latin villanus, meaning a man employed at a Roman villa rustica, or large agricultural estate. The system of tied serfdom originates from a decree issued by the late Roman emperor Diocletian (ruled 284-305) in an attempt to prevent the flight of peasants from the land and the consequent decline in food production. The decree obliged peasants to register in their locality and never leave it.
Because of the lowly status, the term became derogatory. In modern French vilain means "ugly" or "naughty" and in Italian, villano means "rude" or "ill-mannered". In modern English slang villain means a scoundrel or criminal.