The problematic model
The subject of Feudalism or the Feudal system has been a subject of debate among historians since at least 1974, when The American Historical Review published a seminal article by Elizabeth Brown that refuted the accepted construct of Feudalism. Conventional wisdom told this story:
- After the decline of the Carolingian Empire, Europe was beset by both fighting amongst regional nobles and invasions from the Vikings in the North and Magyars (Huns) from the East. To combat these threats and ensure protection for the weak and ensure the existence of the remnants of the Carolingian Empire as the separate entities they had become, the feudal system came into being. People who needed protection pledged to serve the local lord and provide him with the fruits of their labors, while he ensured that he would protect them from maurauding bands. Each lord would in turn make the same kind of deal with the lord above him, e.g., knight-lord, lord-count, count-duke, duke-king. At the non-noble level, we called the system Manorialism, because it revolved around the Manor, or estate.
The most reductionist version of this model is the "feudal pyramid", often seen diagrammed in grammar school history texts, wherein serfs were vassals of knights, knights were vassals of counts, counts of dukes, and dukes of the king, in a neat symmetrical structure from bottom to top.
Unfortunately this construct, and blanket statements like "medieval Europe was a feudal society," imparted a false sense of regularity to "feudalism". It did not account for variations over time and region, nor for the fact that the feudal relationship was really a relationship between people, and could vary with one person to the next. Nor did it allow for one person's vowing allegiance to more than one other person. It was a nice model, but was only that. It bore no strong resemblance to historical reality. As such, Brown advocated throwing the entire terminology out.
Most historians have offered a more mediatory approach. It is that 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. A rough modern analogy would be joining a mobster crew allied to a certain capo. The other oath, fealty, comes from the Latin fidelitas or faith(fulness). 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. /* FIX: citation? also, AD vs. CE - is there a wikipedia convention? */ (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, "praying") position that people had used in antiquity: standing, with hands outstretched. This position is still used today during the prayer of consecration in the Roman Catholic liturgy).
The relationship after the vow was given was often referred to as the lord-vassal relationship, or vassallage. 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 has vassals, as did other leading men in the kingdom. This relationship did become more and more stardardized 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 who strengthened and to some extent institutionalized the feudal relationship in England after the Norman Conquest.
One can never deny that the accepted characteristics of feudalism existed throughout much of the middle ages. However, because those characteristics cannot be shown to have been truly systematized, 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.