Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Feudal System Definition:

A social and land-use debtor system in use in Europe during the Middle Ages.

Related Terms: Federalism, Freehold, Vassal, Dominion Utile, Demesne, Domesday Book, Patrocinium, Precarium, Servitia Debita

A land ownership structure that existed throughout much of Europe between 800 and 1400 and that revolved around a multi-level hierarchy between lords (who held land granted under tenure from the king), and their tenants (also called vassals). Related and sometimes synonymous terms are fief and fee. The feudal system has spawned a unique set of ancient common law terms such as vassal and subinfeudation.

The point of the feudal system, as it was initially imposed on the English by the conquering Normans as of 1066, was to reward land use to those able and willing to commit military-related resources such as military supplies or services:

"From the legal standpoint one of the significant aspects of the Norman plantation was the introduction into England of the most highly organized type of feudal tenure-military tenure.

"Feudalism is a generic term that may be used to describe the social structure of Western Europe in the Middle Ages. It had for its central core the relationship of lord and vassal (not then a word of shame) bound together by a bond of personal loyalty and owing mutual aid and assistance.

"The relation was usually evidenced by the solemn ceremony of homage wherein the vassal knelt before the lord, acknowledged himself to be his man, and swore fealty to him. It was frequently accompanied by a grant of land from the lord to the vassal, the land to be held of the lord by the vassal as tenant.

"Normally, by the terms of the grant specific services were imposed on the tenant and these services (servitia debita) were considered to be a burden on the land itself."1

Woodrow Wilson proposed that the feudal system doubled as a standing army:

"Feudalism was itself a process : the process by which armed and emigrant tribes, settled upon conquered territories, were compacted into states, and prepared for a new political order which should subdue the fierce individualism of the Teuton to a novel discipline of subordination and obedience. When the system had been thoroughly wrought out society resembled an army spread abroad and encamped, every freeman endowed with a portion of land indeed, for his own tillage, but holding it by military tenure, upon the condition that he would serve him of whom he held it, his immediate overlord and commander, whenever his call came to the field : that he would in all things, with a soldier's fealty, prove himself his faithful follower."

Francois Louis Ganshof described feudalism as:

"... a body of institutions creating 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."

Wrote Justice Frank of the U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals in US v Forness:

"Feudalism is a vague term to describe a congeries of customs and legal relations by no means uniform throughout Europe and never static. Nevertheless, it may be said that "feudalism" had one basic characteristic, traceable through all its variations: it rested on relations to land, the primary factor in a relatively primitive agrarian civilization."

The lords had no superior except the king, to whom they were vassals. Under the lords were counts, barons, dukes and the like, vassals to their lords - this Russian doll structure called subinfeudation. The level of lords held most of the land in England which they partitioned to knights or down further to commoners, mostly known as serfs or vassals, though the status of vassal also describes the position of the knight, for example, to his duke.

Tenants or, as they were then called, serfs or vassals would lease land from the lord in exchange for loyalty and goods or services, such as military assistance or money; see also Legal Definition of Heriot.

In exchange, the vassal would be protected from attack and have exclusive use of a designated parcel of land.

The feudal system introduced a complete set of legal terms which are mostly now archaic although many still are in use in England, such as the entire set related to peerage, and the reservation to the Crown of ultimate ownership in land, the title restricted to use only at the King or Queen's pleasure, albeit never now invoked except for legitimate reasons such as expropriation - hence, the terms freehold and fee simple as used on land title documents in some Commonwealth jurisdictions, instead of simply owner.

The Oxford Companion to the Law provides a theory as to the origin of the concept as being Franco-Germanic and even issue of the Roman concepts of patrocinium and precarium:

"Feudalism developed from the weakness of government in late Roman and early mediaeval Europe and the need of small landowners for protection against enemies, invaders and other, more powerful, landowners. This need invoked the aid of two institutions already recognized in law, the patrocinium ... and the precarium....

"Under the Carolingian kings there was developed the duty of military service with mounted soldiers when called upon as the price of a grant of land. Under Charlemagne the army developed into the feudal host as each lord came under the duty to produce his band of soldiers and himself lead them.

"The lords also came to be regarded as the overlords of their districts and the duties and payments which the landowners had originally owed the State became obligations to their lords and conditions of their tenure of lands from those lords. In this process, the right of doing justice among the landowners passed to the lords. They secured immunity from royal agents, and their courts acquired civil and criminal jurisdiction.

"Feudal counties developed, corresponding roughly to the old administrative divisions of the country, the feudal lords exercising administrative and judicial functions.

"It came to be accepted as convenient for the King to be lord of the lords, holding them responsible for the public duties of his vassals. The rule became established that a man who received a fief from a lord owed a vassal's duties and one who owed vassal's duties was given a fief. A fief was usually land but might be, instead or in addition, the right to collect a toll, to operate a mill, to do some honourable service to the King or lord.

"The practice of subinfeudation was recognized, whereby the great lord granted much of his land to dependants, to be held from him for services.

"Feudalism thus came to be recognized over much of western Europe as a system of administration, jurisdiction, military service, and land tenure. But it was not equally or systematically developed everywhere. It was unknown, at least in any developed degree, in England until the Norman Conquest when William introduced it, appropriating the extensive royal domains and giving many of the lands of the defeated Saxons to his chief supporters. On each insurrection by native English William confiscated the estates of the rebels and granted them to his Norman nobles to be held by feudal tenure. By the end of the eleventh century all tenure seems to have become feudal. William moreover was determined to reign as king and broke the practice of the exclusive dependence of a vassal on his lord by exacting in 1086 the Salisbury Oath whereby not only tenants-in-chief but mesne lords and all landowners were obliged to swear fealty to him.

"The introduction of feudalism was of immense significance for the legal and political structure of England for centuries. Once it was established all lands were held subject to obligations due to the King from his tenants-in-chief as original grantees of lands, or to them from mesne lords, and to them in turn from vassals who actually occupied the lands. There might be any number of steps in the chain of tenure. The commonest obligation was that of knight's service, the duty to provide the King with a stated number of knights armed and equipped to serve in his forces for 40 days. Tenure by knightservice was subject also to certain incidents or incidental burdens, namely aids, relief and primer seisin, wardship, marriage, and escheat.

"Sometimes religious bodies held lands in frankalmoign or free alms -  the duty being spiritual, to put up prayers for the soul of the granter. Other tenures were serjeanty and free socage (qq.v.). When a fief was granted the tenant was invested in his lands by livery of seisin, actual or symbolical delivery to him, and he did homage to his lord therefor and took the oath of fealty to him."


  • Ganshof, F. L., Feudalism, 3rd Ed. (New York: 1964), page xvi.
  • NOTE 1: Moynihan, C. J., Introduction to the Law of Real Property: An Historical Background of the Common Law of Real Property and its Modern Application (1962), page 4.
  • Radin, Max, Radin Law Dictionary, 2nd Ed. (Dobbs Ferry, New York: Oceana Publications Inc., 1970), page 128, re "Feudal System"
  • United States v. Forness, 125 F. 2d 928 (1942 - Footnote #7)
  • Walker, David, The Oxford Companion to Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), page 466-467
  • White, Stephen D., English Feudalism and Its Origins,19 Am. J. Legal Hist. 138 (1975)
  • Wilson, Woodrow, The State: Elements of Historical and Practical Politics, Rev. Ed. (Boston: DC Heath & Co. Publisher, 1907), at pages 171-172.

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