Feudalism | Meaning and Features

Feudalism is a social, economic, and political system run by a hierarchical structure based on land ownership and personal relationships.


In this post, we shall examine the concept of feudalism. At the end of this lesson, students should be able to:

  • define feudalism; and
  • enumerate five features of feudalism.


Feudalism is a social, economic, and political system run by a hierarchical structure based on land ownership and personal relationships.


The system emerged in Europe around the 9th century. It was based on the exchange of land for loyalty and military service.

The king or ruler granted land (fiefs) to nobles (vassals), who in turn pledged their allegiance and military support to the king. These nobles then granted smaller portions of land to knights or lesser vassals, creating a hierarchical structure.

Image Credit: René DeAnda on Unsplash.

Features of Feudalism

  1. Land Ownership: Feudalism was founded on the concept of land ownership. The control and distribution of land were central to the system, and it determined an individual’s social status and role within the hierarchy.
  2. Ownership Vested in the Monarch: Ultimate ownership of the land resided in the king, monarch, or emperor. They were the highest authority in the feudal system and granted portions of land to nobles and vassals.
  3. Tribute Payments: Serfs, who were the labouring peasantry, paid annual tributes to their overlords. These tributes could be in the form of labour, goods, or other services provided to the landowners in exchange for protection and the right to work the land.
  4. Overlord’s Duty to Protect Serfs: The overlords, also known as lords or nobles, had a duty to protect the serfs under their control. In return for this protection, serfs worked the land and provided resources to support the feudal system.
  5. Military Service: Feudal tenants, known as vassals, were required to provide military service to their overlords. This obligation involved participating in wars, defending the land, and supporting the lord’s military endeavours.
  6. Land Granting by Vassals: Only a vassal, who was a noble or a knight, could receive land from the lord. The granting of land was often a reward for loyalty, service, or military achievements.
  7. Personal Bond Between Lords and Serfs: Feudalism was characterized by a system of personal relationships between lords and their subjects. These bonds were not merely contractual but often involved a sense of loyalty and mutual obligations.
  8. Feudal Duties: A vassal’s possession of land was contingent upon fulfilling their feudal duties, which included paying tributes, providing military support, and remaining loyal to their overlord.
  9. Land Reverts to the Lord: If a vassal died without an heir or failed to fulfill their feudal obligations, the land would revert back to the lord, who could then grant it to another vassal.
  10. Monarch’s Authority: The monarch held significant authority in the feudal system. They were the lawmaker, judge, and commander over their vassals and lords, maintaining order and enforcing the system’s norms.
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