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The Decline of Feudalism

Andrew is an avid reader who enjoys researching and discussing history with others.

What Is Feudalism?

Feudalism was the dominant economic and socio-political system of Europe during the Middle Ages. Historians are arguing even today when did exactly Feudalism start and when did it exactly end. As European countries have different histories, the answers vary greatly for both questions.

Nonetheless, Feudalism did not just happen out of the blue. Both the appearance and its later decline and disappearance were made possible by the socio-economical changes that Europe went through. Many historians date the beginning of Feudalism to the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. The Roman Empire went through great changes during the 3rd century. Historians named it the Third Century Crisis, when numerous civil wars, foreign invasions and hyperinflation forced the Roman world to change to survive the crisis.

The Birth of Serfdom

Emperor Diocletian and Constantine tried to fix the damage, but their efforts were met with limited successes. One of the key legal innovations of Diocletian and Constantine made the free tenants who worked the lands of the Roman aristocracy tied to this land. Some historians saw this as an early form of serfdom. While the tenants named colonii were not slaves and had certain rights, they were not free men either, as they were obliged to live and work on their landlords' land, without the option of leaving it.

Serfdom became the legal status of most farmers throughout the middle ages, and this status quo allowed the nobility to become the dominant social class of Feudal Europe.

Dominance of the Nobility

The nobility maintained its dominant status throughout the middle ages thanks to many reasons.

First of all, during the later Empire and in the aftermath of the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe became increasingly ruralised. Cities shrank in comparison to their previous size, and the percentage of the urban population of Europe dwindled to less than 10% in most of the Continent.

As most peasants lived in the rural areas, a high percentage of them were on the nobles' lands, so the nobility owned the asset which produced most of the wealth (land) and the people who worked their assets (the serfs). This economic dominance was the backbone of the dominant status of the nobility.

Military Status Quo of Feudal Europe

Another aspect that helped maintain the nobility's dominance was the military status quo of Feudal Europe. During Antiquity, many European armies were peasant militias. The Army of the Roman Republic was one until the days of Gaius Marius, and only the depletion of property-holding citizens forced Marius to recruit the poorer classes for longer service.

From Marius onwards, the Roman Army became a professional army where soldiers served first for 16 and later for 25 years. The Roman state was capable of arming and paying 300,000-600,000 soldiers, as Rome was the master of the entire Mediterranean world and had ample resources during its peak.

But even this number, given closer scrutiny, is not that impressive. The Empire may have had as many as 70 million inhabitants, and even the high number of 600,000 (which many historians doubt is accurate) would mean that the Empire had less than 1 soldier for more than 100 citizens.

When the Roman Empire fell and smaller kingdoms took their place, the maintenance of huge standing armies became impossible. The professional Roman army was replaced by a military elite of the new landowner class (at first a Warband, later the knights and their retainers) and a peasant levy from the peasants who were working the landowners' lands.

As the peasants needed to work the fields, large-scale campaigning was rare in Feudal Europe, and armies were quite small.

The Role of Castles in Nobles' Dominance

Another military aspect that allowed the nobles to dominate the political sphere was their castles. The siege techniques of Medieval Europe were rather primitive before gunpowder weapons became widespread. Thanks to the military status quo, sieges were very costly and often nearly impossible. The nobles could defy their monarchs in the knowledge that their fortresses served as a safe haven for them.

Porträt des Condottiere Pippo Spano by  Andrea del Castagno

Porträt des Condottiere Pippo Spano by Andrea del Castagno

Economic and Social Changes

As the dominance of the Feudal lords was the legacy of the socio-economical and military state of Medieval Europe, it is no surprise that this situation started to change when the status quo that allowed them to thrive changed.

One event that historians consider crucial in the decline of Feudalism was the Black Death of the mid 14th century. The plague may have killed as much as 50% of Europe and left landowners short on manpower. The peasants understood this and tried to use their leverage to force concessions out of the nobility. At first, they met with resistance, but with time serfdom was abolished throughout Western Europe. However, it has to be noted that in Eastern Europe, serfdom lived its Renaissance after the 16th century.

The Black Death was not the only event that undermined the dominance of the nobility. In the late middle ages, the towns of Europe started to grow again. Often these towns purchased their freedom from their bankrupt Feudal lords. The growth of the towns led to the emergence of a merchant and banker class which accumulated wealth often so quickly that their emergence threatened the power of the nobles.

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One good example of this would be the Medici family of Florence, who rose thanks to their famous bank, though with time, the bankers turned into aristocrats and became the dukes of Florence.

Towns generally had a rural area under their direct control, but the elites of the independent towns relied on more than just land to make wealth. Long-distance trade became more common in late Medieval Europe, which gave the merchants and bankers the to make fortunes. Italian ships sailed from as far as Egypt, Flanders and England. The Hansa Towns dominated the North Sea trade.

After the discovery of America and the Portuguese exploration of the Indian Ocean, European merchants and chartered companies made so much money through silk, pepper, gold etc. trade that the wealth extracted by the Feudal lords from their lands paled in comparison.

Still, up until the Industrial Revolution, the nobility remained very powerful and influential. Despite the influence and the wealth merchants had, the growth of their influence was limited by the smallish nature of the urban population of Europe.

Some countries had a bigger urban population than others. The Dutch Republic may have had as much as 1/3 of its population living in urban areas, but the agricultural techniques of pre-industrial Europe simply made it impossible to produce enough food to feed a huge urban population.

The Industrial Revolution changed this status quo. During the second part of the 19th century, the improved agricultural techniques led to a population boom and rapid urbanisation. Urban population, for the first time, became the dominant element of European society, and the days of the agrarian-based society dominated by the aristocracy came to an end.

Military Revolution

The knights and their retainers were the dominant force on the battlefields of Medieval Europe. The dominance of the knights came to an end in the 14th and 15th centuries. The widespread use of gunpowder and pikes made heavy cavalry charges obsolete. By the middle of the 16th century, the dominant form of European battlefields was the tercios( a combination of pikemen and firearm-wielding infantry).

The usage of these two weapons had several consequences. First of all, unlike the training of swordsmen, knights or even skilled archers, which all took years, the training of pikemen or musketeers required much less time. This allowed rulers to recruit bigger armies than in the previous era. The dominant weapons of the age were more user-friendly, and a much larger emphasis was placed on fighting formation.

Coherent movement between the two units was crucial; on their own, the pikemen were slow and ponderous and easy targets for enemy artillery or musketeers. Further, the musketeers were sitting ducks for enemy cavalry without the protection of the pikemen.

Pikes became obsolete with time, as the invention of the bayonet allowed infantry to scrap pikes altogether.

The invention and increased use of artillery also played a key role in the decline of Feudalism. As I have previously mentioned, castles played a key role in maintaining the dominance of feudal nobility. Their castles were built to be capable of withstanding sieges from medieval forces. The high walls made it very hard to besiege them, and even successful sieges were often very costly.

This changed when armies began to use guns. Most medieval castles' high and thin walls were the perfect target for guns, and engineers needed to design completely new fortresses in the 16th century to counter the threat of artillery.

The Role of the State

Finally, the decline of the nobility was only exploited because there was an actor in the political sphere capable of taking advantage of it: the state.

Throughout the Medieval period, nobles were more than capable of defying their monarchs and often fought against them and even deposed them.

The early modern period saw the rise of the state, to the detriment of the nobles.

The state slowly took over the prerogatives of the nobility and became the dominant power within states. These prerogatives were the military, as with time the private armies of nobles were completely replaced by state-funded armies; law, as the private seignorial jurisdiction with time was replaced by universal state laws that were maintained and enforced by state-paid officials; and financial, as the state reserved for itself the possibility to mint coins.


The transition from Feudalism to Capitalism by Georges Lefebvre

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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