Definition of feudalism
- A social system based on personal ownership of resources and personal fealty between a suzerain (lord) and a vassal (subject). Defining characteristics are direct ownership of resources, personal loyalty, and a hierarchical social structure reinforced by religion.
Feudalism is a decentralized sociopolitical structure in which a weak monarchy attempts to control the lands of the realm through reciprocal agreements with regional leaders. In its most classic sense, feudalism refers to the Medieval European political system composed of a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility, revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals, and fiefs. Although derived from the Latin word feodum (fief), then in use, the term feudalism and the system it describes were not conceived of as a formal political system by the people living in the Medieval Period.
There is no broadly accepted modern definition of feudalism. The term, which was coined in the early modern period (17th century), was originally used in a political context, but other definitions of feudalism exist. Since at least the 1960s, many medieval historians have included a broader social aspect, adding the peasantry bonds of manorialism, sometimes referred to as a "feudal society". Still others since the 1970s have re-examined the evidence and concluded that feudalism is an unworkable term and should be removed entirely from scholarly and educational discussion, or at least used only with severe qualification and warning.
Outside a European context, the concept of feudalism is normally used only by analogy (called semi-feudal), most often in discussions of Japan under the shoguns, and sometimes medieval and Gondarine Ethiopia. However, some have taken the feudalism analogy further, seeing it in places as diverse as ancient Egypt, the Parthian empire, the Indian subcontinent, and the antebellum American South.
The term feudal has also been applied-often inappropriately or pejoratively-to non-Western societies where institutions and attitudes similar to those of medieval Europe are perceived to prevail. Ultimately, the many ways the term feudalism has been used has deprived it of specific meaning, leading many historians and political theorists to reject it as a useful concept for understanding society.
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