Feudalism was the dominant social system in medieval Europe, from approximately the 9th to the 15th centuries, although its roots can be traced back to the late Roman Empire. It was a complex set of legal and military customs that structured society around relationships derived from the holding of land, known as a fiefdom, in exchange for service or labor.
## Primary characteristics of feudalism
1. **Decentralized Power**: Unlike modern states, power in feudal societies was not centralized. Instead, the King or Queen granted land to nobles, who in turn might grant portions of their land to lower-ranking lords. This created a hierarchy of authority throughout the society.
2. **Land in Exchange for Services**: The foundation of feudalism was the exchange of land for services. A lord, also known as a vassal, would be granted land, or a fief, by a higher-ranking noble, or a suzerain. In return, the vassal pledged his loyalty and service to the suzerain. This service often took the form of military assistance.
3. **Manorial System**: Attached to the feudal system was the manorial system, which described the relationship between a lord and his serfs (the peasants). The serfs worked the lord's land in exchange for protection and the right to cultivate a portion of the land for their subsistence.
4. **Feudal Obligations**: These were duties that each party owed to the other. A lord owed his vassals protection and the right to justice, and in return, vassals owed their lord loyalty, service, and certain dues.
5. **Hierarchy of Nobility**: At the top of the pyramid was the monarch, who granted land to his vassals (nobles). These nobles could further sub-divide and grant their land to lesser lords, or knights, creating a complex hierarchy.
Feudalism began to decline in the 15th and 16th centuries, primarily due to changes in warfare, the growth of powerful monarchies, and the impact of the Black Death, which dramatically reduced the population of Europe and disrupted the manorial system. The rise of commerce and the middle class also played a significant role in weakening the feudal system.
In [economic](https://doctorparadox.net/category/economics/) terms, feudalism was largely a subsistence economy with little trade. Most people lived on manors and produced everything they needed. However, as towns and trade grew, the feudal system was less able to adapt to these changes, leading to its eventual decline.