How useful is the concept of feudalism in explaining the history of the period Essay Example
How useful is the concept of feudalism in explaining the history of the period Essay Example

How useful is the concept of feudalism in explaining the history of the period Essay Example

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  • Pages: 5 (1198 words)
  • Published: December 15, 2017
  • Type: Case Study
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It is perhaps customary to start an essay by defining the key terms of the argument. However any attempt to define feudalism is doomed to failure and illustrates the nature of the problem when using the term. Marc Bloch defined it as "a subject peasantry, widespread use of the service tenement instead of salary, supremacy of a class of specialised warriors, ties of obedience and protection which bind man to man, fragmentation of authority and survival of other forms of association, family and state," Strayer stated "western European feudalism is essentially political, it is a form of government, one in which rights of government are attached to lordship and fiefs..

. n which political power is monopolized by a small group of military leaders... public authority has become a private possession" whilst Duby was convinced feudalism was a "psychological complex formed in the small wo


rld of warriors who little by little become nobles.

A consciousness of the superiority of a status characterized by military specialization, one that presupposes respect for certain moral precepts and the associated idea that social relations are organised as a function of companionship in combat. The problem is the sheer variety of existing definitions of the term and the general unwillingness of any historian to accept any other historian's characterization of feudalism. Broadly speaking there are two general categories into which definitions of feudalism fall. Firstly, feudalism as technical arrangements by which vassals became dependents of lords and landed property with attached economic benefits became organised as dependent tenures or fiefs or secondly, feudalism as a general word which sums up the dominant forms of political and social organisation during certain centuries o

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the Middle Ages.

The difficulty of concentrating on the technical aspects of feudalism is that it sets no chronological limits and provides no standards by which feudalism can be clearly distinguished from preceding and succeeding types of organisation. In seventeenth century France and England all the technical forms of feudalism survive, most nobles are vassals and much of their land is held as fiefs.Yet it is only the form which has survived, the ideas which control the relationship of king and noble no longer conform to the feudal pattern. Definitions in the second category solve the chronological confusion but apply the feudal label to all social phenomena between the tenth and thirteenth centuries. The class structure of the late Middle Ages was very different from that of the early Middle Ages- are they both feudal?Any static definition of feudalism could not explain the dynamic way medieval society developed. Essentially feudalism is too ambitious a term to work.

The impossible task that has been set before the word feudalism is that of making a single word represent a very large piece of the world's history, in fact to represent the France, Italy, Germany and England of every century from the ninth to fourteenth.Comprehensive words, be they capitalism or socialism must over simplify the reality they purport to epitomize. Attempting to justify the formulation and use of such models and abstractions by maintaining that scholarly terminology and common usage assume their existence is patently circular, avoiding as this argument does the obvious fact that scholarly terminology can be revised and common usage clarified. The contention that such general terms are essential for intelligent discourse is also debatable.Southern's classic

study of the making of the Middle Ages completely avoided the use of the term feudalism.

Intelligent discourse devoid of general abstract terms such as war, industry and agriculture is, the argument runs, inconceivable. Disagreements over the exact meaning of war or agriculture do occur but they can be ordinarily resolved by introducing greater precision and clarity into the definitions of the terms, whose core significance is not generally contested.Infinite disagreements about the meanings of 'isms' is possible and perhaps meritable, since the terms were not devised to designate the basic elements of fundamentally similar classes of phenomena but rather to refer to selected elements of complex phenomena, the choice of which inevitably involves the value judgements of the terms inventor and employers. Thus whilst it is easy to say what the words fief, capital or merchant mean, it is impossible to seek consensus on the definitions of feudalism, capitalism and mercantilismIndeed not only is feudalism unhelpful in analysing the period it is damaging. There is an inclination to employ the idea of fully developed, classical or perfectly formed feudalism as a standard by which to rank and measure areas or societies.

The Church in Norman Italy has been judged "never feudalised to the same extent as ... the church in Norman England.

" Appraising in terms of an ideal standard need not involve making value judgements but such assessments are ordinarily expressed in value loaded terms.Even if formulated in value free terms, analyses of societies on the basis of their conformity to or devotion from a norm offer little insight into the societies themselves. Furthermore historians investigating the workings of medieval run the risk

of having their vision narrowed, their perspective anachronistically skewed and their receptivity to divergent data consequently blunted, unless they firmly divorce themselves from the preconceptions ands sets associated with the oversimplified models and abstractions with which they have been indoctrinated.At its worst a dependence on the term may lure practitioners to derive features of an epoch from the etymology of the word used to describe it or construct edifices of historical arguments out of mere semantic conceits.

The origins of the term feudalism and its subsequent use suggest it is irredeemably corrupted. Feudalism was a term created in the mid nineteenth century based at best on legal terms from the eighteenth century, it represented a mental construct that never did exist anywhere at any time.It is affected by the continuing overtones from political polemics such as Marx and Hegel on the relationship of feudalism to the growth of constitutionalism. Richardson and Sayles have suggested the term has become "no more than an arbitrary pattern imposed by modern writers upon men long dead and events long past.

" Cheyette demonstrated that one way not to talk about feudalism was to talk instead about medieval institutions and cultural forms that mediated relations among people of approximately the same social strata.His main argument was that communities were held together not only by vertical relations but by horizontal ones. Such an emphasis has opened new avenues in accounts of relations between peasants and in disputes between nobles. Understanding the workings of medieval society necessarily involves exploring the intricate complexities of life rather than elaborating definitions designed to minimise, simplify and in the last analysis obscure these complexities.Unfortunately feudalism has

become so vague that it is quite possible to maintain that of all countries England was the most or for that matter of that the least feudalised, that William the Conqueror introduced or suppressed the feudal system.

It has been suggested that the term feudalism cannot simply be discarded since the verbal detours necessary to avoid it would lengthy and complex. However this not too high a price too pay as the term has now become less a term of convenience than a cover for ignorance.

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