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Feudalism, or sometimes called the feudal system, in the present-day study of medieval history describes a legal and administrative order founded upon the exchange of reciprocal undertakings of protection and loyalty among the administrative, military and ecclesiastical elite of Europe and often Japan, and sometimes other societies.

The idea of feudalism as defined at the time of Karl Marx can be seen in one of its most controversial contexts, that is, in the 19th- and 20th-century debate between advocates of capitalism and of socialism. Socialists, most prominently Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, argued that the inevitable progress of history led from feudalism to capitalism to socialism. This, of course, made defining feudalism a political act.

The essence of feudalism has been a subject of shifting discussion for more than a century, at least since the British medieval historians J.H. Round and F.W. Maitland arrived at different conclusions as to the character of English society prior to the start of Norman rule in 1066, the former arguing for a Norman import of feudalism and the latter contending that the fundamentals were already in place - a debate which continues to this day.

In 1974, U.S. historian Elizabeth A.R. Brown challenged the value of using the word at all, rejecting the label as an anachronistic construct which imparted a false sense of uniformity to the phenomena it purported to describe. In her Fiefs and Vassals (1994), Susan Reynolds expanded upon Brown's original thesis. Although some of her contemporaries questioned Reynolds' methodology, her thesis has received widespread support.

Though it is sometimes used indiscriminately to encompass all reciprocal obligations of support and loyalty in the place of unconditional tenure of position, jurisdiction or land, the term is restricted by most historians to the exchange of specifically voluntary and personal undertakings, to the exclusion of involuntary obligations attached to tenure of "unfree" land: the latter are considered to be rather an aspect of Manorialism, an element of Feudal society but not of feudalism proper.

"Feudalism" and related terms should therefore be approached and used with considerable caution owing to the range of meanings associated with the term. It is important to remember that no medieval society ever described itself or its institutions and relationships as "feudal", and it is advisable to avoiding employing it to characterise phenomena for which others may find its use inappropriate.

Though used in popular parlance to represent all voluntary or customary bonds in medieval society, or a social order in which civil and military power is exercised under private contractual arrangements, the term is best considered appropriate only to the voluntary, personal undertakings binding lords and free men to protection in return for support which characterised the administrative and military order.

It is this approach that follows.

The late 20th century model of feudalism

The feudal relationship revolved around a simple contract and a vow of Homage or fealty. The two are not mutually exclusive. Homage rests on the promise to become the "man" of another, not as a servant, but in more of a sense of someone who could be relied on to fight under the lord's command. The other oath, fealty, comes from the Latin fidelitas or faithfulness. The (standing) person receiving the vows would take the hands of the (kneeling) person giving the vows between his own in a symbolic gesture.

This ceremony is first recorded in the 7th century A.D. Interestingly, the physical position for Christian prayer that is thought of as "typical" today -- kneeling, with hands clasped -- originates from the ceremony of fealty. Before this time, European Christians prayed in the "orans" (Latin, or "praying" position that people had used in antiquity: standing, with hands outstretched. This position is still used today in many Christian rituals).

The relationship after the vow was given was often referred to as the lord-vassal relationship, or vassalage. In return for this vow of faith and support, the lord would often make a grant of lands or their fruits to his vassal. These grants are called fiefs. The lord-vassal relationship was not restricted to members of the laity. Bishops and abbots were also capable of acting as lords.

Extant sources reveal that the early Carolingians had vassals, as did other leading men in the kingdom. This relationship did become more and more standardized over the next two centuries, but there were differences in function and practice in different locations. For example, in the German kingdoms that replaced the kingdom of Eastern Francia, as well as in some Slavic kingdoms, the feudal relationship was arguably more closely tied to the rise of serfdom, a system that tied peasants to the land (for more on this see the works of Leonard Blum on the history of serfdom).

Moreover, the evolution of the Holy Roman Empire greatly affected the history of the feudal relationship in central Europe. If one follows long-accepted feudalism models, one might believe that there was a clear hierarchy from Emperor to lesser rulers, be they kings, dukes, princes, or margraves. These models are patently untrue: the Holy Roman Emperor was elected by a group of seven magnates, three of whom were princes of the church, who in theory could not swear allegiance to any secular lord.

The French kingdoms also seem to provide clear proof that the models are accurate, until we take into consideration the fact that, when Hrolf or Rollo the Gangler kneeled to pay homage to Charles the Simple in return for the Duchy of Normandy, accounts tell us that he knocked the king on his rump as he rose, demonstrating his view that the bond was only as strong as the lord -- in this case, not strong at all.

The autonomy with which the Normans ruled their duchy supports the view that, despite any legal "feudal" relationship, the Normans did as they pleased. In the case of their own leadership, however, the Normans utilized the feudal relationship to bind their followers to them. It was the influence of the Norman invaders which strengthened and to some extent institutionalized the feudal relationship in England after the Norman Conquest.

Few deny that the accepted characteristics of feudalism existed through much of the Middle Ages. However, we must take great care in how we use the terms "feudal" and "feudalism." The use of these terms depends so heavily upon context, that that context should always be given, except in the very narrow sense of an oath-based personal relationship in which one person promises armed support and faithfulness to another in exchange for support in the form of lands or wealth.

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