Part one: The history of feudalism and its earliest forms
By the end of the 15th century, French language was introduced with a term féodalité which represented laws and customs that were effective in France as of the Carolingian period until the end of the Middle Ages. These laws were typical of martial polity, a system that protected the man, and of non-existence of public government. The first to have used the term „feudalism“ were English lawyers in the 17th century. They implied a legal system of fiefs, which was at that time the only surviving part of the medieval system.1
As to fully comprehend feudalism and its development, we shall go back to earlier periods. „The feudal society“ is a typical type of society where agriculture is a predominant type of economy and it was mostly developed in such circumstances. In times when the Western Roman Empire was at its last breaths, the life of small landowners was exceptionally hard. In such conditions, they had to give away their land to the Church as insurance, after which the Church gave it back to them in a form of a gift (beneficium). Cultivators that had no land or didn’t have enough, and had a desire to live off their work as farmers, went to see the overlord whom they would formally ask (preces) for land in exchange for a compensation. Such property was called a precarium.2 I. e., the land that is formally and legally owned by one individual, is possessed by some other individual. Whilst the Roman law permitted that precarium be consumed until the provider chooses so, in Frankish law it became a sort of a land lease for a predetermined period of time. As much as this was an important element in the uprise of feudal society, what we call a fief was a special type of benefit; a gift to the vassal in exchange for his military service. Honor, loyalty and military service will, at last, constitute something that is, in medieval terms, called a vassal relationship.3
A vassal enters willingly into a relationship with an overlord, agreeing thereby to certain obligations and thus bonding with him by personal loyalty. The overlord and his vassal are bound by a vassal agreement, in which the vassal swears loyalty to his overlord. The establishment of a feudal relationship is followed by a ceremony in which the vassal puts his hands into his overlord’s, and the overlord folds his hands around the vassal’s. The vassal’s obligation to his overlord is called consilium, i.e. council, or auxilium which represents military or more rarely financial assistance. In return, the overlord is obligated to provide protection to the vassal.4
In order to obtain funds for living and for obligatory military service, vassals provided pieces of land to other vassals or to serfs directly. Without this procedure, the feudal hierarchy would not have been maintained, and the entire production would have been significantly smaller. Serfs were forced into subordinant and dependent position, and for the purpose of upkeep, they were forced to lease land from a feudal. In case they wished to leave the land or free themselves, they were forcefully prevented from doing so. In exchange for ceded land, the serfs were obliged to pay a feudal fee to their master, which was usually paid in three different types; labor, natural goods or money. Even though these types of rent appeared mostly individually, due to different types of deals and feudals increasingly burdening the serfs, there are cases where some of these types appeared together.
The political system in the area of Western Europe, that fully grew during the Carolingian era in 8th century, was developed as a synthesis of the two prior systems; imperial and barbaric, in time when the assignment of feuds on one hand, and the establishment of vassal-overlord relationship on the other, were connected. In parallel with the Frankish conquests during the end of the 8th and the beginning of the 9th century, feudalism spread towards Italy, Spain, Germany, to the East towards Hungary and to some Slavenic lands. The Normans also spread it to lands they conquered. Thus it arrived to England and to the south of Italy. From England it spread to Ireland and Scotland. Feudalism appears in the Middle East as well, when the Crusader states were formed round the end of the 11th century, but also in Byzantine Empire, where we find pronoia as an equivalent to feud. Japan and China, as great non-European civilizations, went through a feudal period in their histories. Japanese feudalism is comparable to European, and in China a similar process evolves already in the 2nd century BC, and retains until the 20th century. In 12th century, in some of the most developed European countries such as England and France, feudalism finds itself under pressure from different social groups, and by maturity of organized society, feudal relations are gradually replaced by relations of masters to their subjects. Under such circumstances, feudalism loses its significance as a political and social phenomenon, especially in the 14th century. Despite such turn of events, feudalism left a deep mark in European societies, having influenced on modern political systems and their development. Finally, feudalism was abolished in England in the 16th century, in France in 1789, in Russia in 1861, and in Croatia in 1848.5
After conquering Italy, the Langobards inhabited it by tribal communities (farae). The royal government and the dukes as representatives of Langobard ancestral aristocracy thus occupied properties that were preowned by the Empire, along with the lands of large landowners that had been exiled or murdered, whilst the ancestral communities seized lands of smaller landowners or abandoned properties. In the process of forming of Langobard villages, tribal communities were divided into individual economical units, i.e. large families that consisted of three or four generations that collectively cultivated the ploughlands. The pastures and forests remained a common property of the entire village community. However, shortly after the conquest, the economical and social relations go through a reform, thus the „Edict of Rothari“ was published in 643, by which the tribal village community becomes a neighboring community or mark. It can be seen from the fore mentioned edict that large families, which were until then basic economical units of ancestral villages, were split into smaller families of single married couples. Common lands of large families were divided into allodial lands of smaller families which were governed by the father of the family, and sold, pledged or granted solely at his will. Forests and pastures remain at disposal to all villagers, and ploughlands and meadows are left as a free pasture for the whole village’s live stock.6
In the middle of the 7th century the Langobard population was divided into four groups:
- Fulcfree et haamund – completely free and independant people
- Fulcfree – free, but economically dependant people
- Aldi – half-free people
Under the Rothari law, fulcfree was free, but economically dependent individual, and he was brought into this position due to impoverishment (given the fact that before this he was free and independent) or if he was a slave or aldio, and was subsequently granted freedom by his master. The social status of aldi was similar to slavery. Aldio had a piece of land which was owned by his master who was responsible for him, which made him legally dependent. Aldio also had features of freedom which meant that he was able to govern his land and employ slaves, and he could also marry a free woman, which lead to her losing freedom.
Above these four basic categories of Langobard society there was former military tribal aristocracy, which served to highest bearers of political authority. The royal government had its court, which hired servants such as marshals, majordoms, treasurers, sword bearers etc. Some royal estates were governed by gastalds who had civil, military and judicial authority, and besides them there were also other administrative and judicial officials such as judices. Lands were cultivated by laborers, who were either slaves, aldi or fulcfree. However, free and independent people are increasingly called arimani or exercitales in the 7th and 8th century. The feature of this group of people was right and duty to participate in war.7
In the middle of the 8th century, king Aistulf legally forbade all the libertines and dependent liberals to leave their masters, unless they were given a special muniment granting them a right to leave. The land was given for cultivation to a free man that had no land of his own, under terms of a written contract (libellus scriptus). The forming of such relationships is a result of Liutprand’s law from 727. Libellarius is a free man that is granted a piece of land from the landlord to cultivate, in exchange for toll. By this act, he keeps his personal freedom, but accepts land and judicial dependency to the landlord.8
- The word „feudalism“ was first used by the 17th century English lawyers.
- Miroslav BRANDT, Srednjovjekovno doba povijesnog razvitka, Zagreb: Školska knjiga, 1995.
- Joseph CALMETTE, Feudalno društvo, Sarajevo: Veselin Masleša, 1964.
- Ivo GOLDSTEIN – Borislav GRGIN, Europa i Sredozemlje u srednjem vijeku, Zagreb: Novi Liber, 2008.
- 1 Ivo GOLDSTEIN – Borislav GRGIN, Europa i Sredozemlje u srednjem vijeku, Zagreb: Novi Liber, 2008, p. 150-151
- 2 Joseph CALMETTE, Feudalno društvo, Sarajevo: Veselin Masleša, 1964, p. 7-9
- 3 Ivo GOLDSTEIN – Borislav GRGIN, Europa i Sredozemlje u srednjem vijeku …, p. 151-152
- 4 Joseph CALMETTE, Feudalno društvo…, p. 38-43
- 5 Joseph CALMETTE, Feudalno društvo…, p. 154-156
- 6 Miroslav BRANDT, Srednjovjekovno doba povijesnog razvitka, zagreb: Školska knjiga, 1995, p 117-118
- 7 Miroslav BRANDT, Srednjovjekovno doba povijesnog razvitka, zagreb: Školska knjiga, 1995, p 118-119
- 8 Miroslav BRANDT, Srednjovjekovno doba povijesnog razvitka, zagreb: Školska knjiga, 1995, p 119-120