The following definition of feudalism is from the Introduction of E. L. Ganshof's, Feudalism, trans. Philip Grierson, (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964), pp. xv-xvii. I must stress that feudalism is a rather contentious word with a contentious history. It's meaning will necessarily be the subject of an endless debate. This much said, Ganshof's definition must be seen as representative of one definition among many. A brief list of internet resources follows the selection.
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The word ‘feudalism’ (Germ. Lehnswesen or Feudalismus; Fr. féothilité) is one to which many different meanings have been attached. During the French Revolution, it was virtually adopted as a generic description covering the many abuses of the Ancien Régime, and it is still in popular use in this sense today. Even if this quite illegitimate extension of its meaning be ignored, there exist many attempts at its analysis and definition which do not seem to be very closely related to one another. But if we limit our selves to essentials it will be found that the word is used by historians in two more or less distinct senses.
Feudalism may be conceived of as a form of society possessing well-marked features which can be defined without difficulty. They may be summarized as follows: a development pushed to extremes of the element of personal dependence in society, with a specialized military class occupying the higher levels in the social scale; an extreme subdivision of the rights of real property; a graded system of rights over land created by this subdivision and corresponding in broad outline to the grades of personal dependence just referred to; and a dispersal of political authority amongst a hierarchy of persons who exercise in their own interest powers normally attributed to the State and which are often, in fact, de rived from its break-up.
This type of society, whether one calls it ‘feudalism’ or the ‘feudal régime’, was that of western Europe in the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries. It came into existence in France, Germany, the kingdom of Burgundy-Aries and Italy, all of them states deriving from the Carolingian empire, and in other countries -- England, certain of the Christian kingdoms of Spain, the Latin principalities of the Near East -- which passed under their influence. In other places and at other times, types of society have existed which show many analogies with the feudalism which one finds in France, Germany, the kingdom of Burgundy-Aries and Italy during the Middle Ages, so that scholars have been led to speak of ‘feudalism’ in ancient Egypt, in India, in the Byzantine empire, in the Arab world, in the Turkish empire, in Russia, in Japan, and elsewhere. In making these comparisons, historians have some times drawn parallels which a closer examination of the sources has failed to justify, though in some instances, as in that of Japan, the parallelism is very close.
The late Professor Calmette and the late Marc Bloch, in writing on feudalism in this sense, preferred to speak of ‘feudal society’. Such a practice, if it were generally accepted, would have the ad vantage of allowing one to use the word ‘feudalism’ only in the second sense that can be attached to it.
In this second sense of the word, ‘feudalism’ may be regarded as a body of institutions creating and regulating the obligations of obedience and service -- mainly military service -- on the part of a free man (the vassal) towards another free man (the lord), and the obligations of protection and maintenance on the part of the lord with regard to his vassal. The obligation of maintenance had usually as one of its effects the grant by the lord to his vassal of a unit of real property known as a fief. This sense of the word feudalism is obviously more restricted and more technical than the other. We can perhaps regard it as the legal sense of the word, while the first use covers mainly the social and political senses.
These two meanings of the word feudalism are not unrelated to each other, since the society which we have described above is known as feudal because in it the fief, if not the corner-stone, was at least the most important element in the graded system of rights over land which this type of society involved.
Feudalism in its narrow sense, meaning the system of feudal and vassal institutions, was also, and to an even greater degree than feudalism in its broad sense, proper to the states born of the break-up of the Carolingian empire and the countries influenced by them. Once again, however, we find in other historical environments certain institutions which bear a remarkable resemblance to those of the feudalism of the western middle ages. The ‘daimios’ and the ‘bushi’ or ‘samurai’ of Japan can be compared to vassals, and land which was granted to them is comparable to the fief. The same is true of the Arab and Turkish ‘iqta’. Russia, between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, knew institutions very close to that of vassalage, and the ‘conditional ownership’ which is met with at the same period and which in the fifteenth century came to be known as ‘pomestie’ has many analogies with the fief.’
The literature on feudalism is, as expected, immense. Two works worthy of your attention are Marc Bloch's wonderful Feudal Society, 2 vols, trans. L. A. Manyon, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961) and Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994). The latter title is intended for the medieval specialist and is rather tough-going.
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