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Feudalism was a system of civil and military administration used in most European countries in the second millennium, with some societies even predating that. Feudalism covered almost everything in society but notably your position in it, land tenure, and inheritance.

Its abolition or scaling down was gradual and depended upon the individual States who used it. For instance, final abolition of the feudal system of land tenure in Scotland did not occur until 2000. In Finland, Norway, and Sweden, feudalism was never fully established.


Many States were feudal vassals of another entity. This meant little and was a form of grand-standing by the feudal overlord. The Holy Roman Empire was feudal overlord to numerous States; in the 15th century the King of Poland became feudal overlord of East Prussia for some time after the imposed 1466 Treaty of Thorn; Normandy was held as a feu from the King of France until it was finally absorbed into the French State; before the advent of Robert the Bruce England was overlord of Scotland. In reality it changed little or nothing within the States concerned, except that the foreign affairs of the vassal states were nominally in the hands of the feudal overlord. It meant too that the feudal State had to pay homage from time to time to the overlord King or Emperor. Usually when the monarch of the vassal-state changed the new monarch would be obliged to pledge his homage. It did not alter the nationality of the vassal-state's which continued their own administrations, currencies, languages etc.

In Chief

Likewise, all those who held their lands "in chief" from the Crown (or other form of monarch - as opposed to supra-national overlords) in any State, were vassals of that monarch and were usually obliged to provide military and/or other forms of service to the State when called upon. When a vassal died the next lord of those lands would have to pay homage to the monarch to receive his inheritance and confirm his oath.


Serfdom was part of early feudalism, and was where a peasant was tied to the estate or family he or she was employed by. It was almost impossible to leave that place without the written consent of the Master, making it a form of bondage. However, it had largely died out in England by 1500 as a personal status, and was fully ended when Queen Elizabeth I freed the last remaining serfs in 1574. In 1763, Frederick II 'The Great' of Prussia abolished serfdom on all Crown lands. Additionally, he issued an order to end the suppression of the peasant. Prussia fully abolished serfdom with the "October Edict" of 1807, which upgraded the personal legal status of the peasantry and gave them ownership of half or two-thirds of the lands they were working, a revolutionary step. These steps were particularly welcome in Prussia's eastern provinces where, as in Galicia, some Polish nobility had maintained harsh serfdom regimes. In other parts of Eastern Europe, the institution persisted until the middle of the 19th century. In the Austrian Empire, serfdom was abolished by the 1781 Serfdom Patent; corvée continued to exist until 1848. Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom in Russia in 1861.In Denmark serfdom-like institutions did exist in both stavns (the stavnsbånd, from 1733 to 1788) and its vassal Iceland (the more restrictive vistarband, from 1490 until 1894).

Civil laws

Well into the nineteenth century the feudal system remained in place in many countries relating to numerous parts of civil administration, notably inheritance and Wills. Under the system, the Crown was the superior landlord of the entire country. Great estate owners held their land-holdings in chief from the Crown. They could, if they wished, then sell or lease feus of some of their property to others for a fixed sum and modest annual payment. These transactions would have to be approved by the Crown. Land held in chief (freehold) could only devolve by inheritance law to the eldest son, who could not be disinherited unless certified an imbecile. No other member of the family had any claim to it. Under this system the great estates remained intact, its owners usually rich from the incomes from them. England, however, had done away with these provisions as early as 1660, and in France where their revolution abolished feudalism. With the coming of Napoleon and his invasions of most of the European continent it was largely abolished in those countries and replaced with the so-called Napoleonic Code. After his demise many countries restored many aspects of feudalism, notably those countries which held that they adopted the Code only under duress, had not really put it fully into operation, and so were quick to abolish it, such as Austria-Hungary.


  • Feudal England by J. Horace Round, Swan Sonnenschein, London, 1909.
  • Life on the English Manor - A Study of Peasant Conditions 1150-1400, by H. S. Bennett, M.A., Cambridge University Press, 1948.
  • Feudal Britain by Professor G. W. S. Barrow, Edward Arnold Publishers, London, 1956/1965.
  • Lordship and Feudalism in the Middle Ages by Professor Guy Fourquin, Geo. Allen & Unwin, London, 1976, ISBN: 0-04-9400487
  • Kings and Lords in Conquest England by Professor Robin Fleming, Cambridge University Press, 1991/2004, ISBN: 0-521-52694-9
  • Fiefs and Vassals by S. Reynolds, Oxford University Press, U.K., 1994, ISBN: 0-19-820458-2
  • Tenures of Land and Customs of Manors by W. Carew Hazlitt, Barrister-at-Law, A.W. & C. Barsby, U.K., 1994, ISBN: 0-9521625-4--7