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Defining Feudalism Essay

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The term Feudalism can mean many things, depending on the context. If the person trying to define the term is not a Medievalist, then the definition would most likely be negative. As R.A. Brown says about feudal and feudalism: "in popular speech they are ignorantly intended as insults even more derogatory than 'medieval.'" The problem with the terms is that they are modern terms not medieval ones. The writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries developed terms of denigration for the societies that they were studying, and applied them over a wide area, as a way to understand their own eras. Thus we have, still, the use of the term Feudal Europe, even though Marc Bloch states that "feudal Europe was not all feudalized in the same degree or according to the same rhythm and, above all, that it was nowhere feudalized completely," also he says that there are areas where feudalism is conspicuously absent, such as Scandinavia, Ireland and others.

An accurate definition of the term has been an apparent stumbling block in the academic community, as the recent debate on the subject in the Internet discussion list Mediev-l demonstrates. For almost a month Medieval scholars wrote back and forth about the virtues and the drawbacks of the terms, with the majority lining up on the drawback side. As a basic and simple definition one may assume that feudalism exists in a society with

1) extremely strong ties of personal dependence,

2) a strong military class at the top of the social structure,

3) hierarchical systems of land rights based on

personal dependence,

4) a breakup of central authority, with State powers distributed to powerful men (usually) in control

of large areas of land,

and

5) a body of insti...


... middle of paper ...


...for the discrediting of the term as well. Feudalism has been defined in so many different ways, that it is not possible to reach a true definition.

Many people have different notions about what is and is not feudal. Now the tendency is to just get rid of the term, rather than defining it with authority, as with Brown. This would be a mistake. As a constructed term feudalism fulfills its purpose as a generalization: it gives students and lecturers a springboard from which they can leap to higher, more complex ideas and concepts, without losing much along the way. However much some scholars may 'deplore' the term feudalism, however much popular speech mangles the meaning behind feudal, with the proper definition and a brief explanation, they can open up many facets of Medieval European society and culture.


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