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The word ‘feudal’ was created by the Renaissance jurists of Italy to label what they saw as the usual customary law on land. It lacks a clear definition, but it may be inferred from the meaning created by historians, economists and philosophers. It was a social and economic structure defined by hereditary social lines. All these hereditary lines possessed natural, social, and economic benefits and responsibilities.
In this sense, wealth was primarily a creation of the land as a factor of production. However, it had been subjected to the cultured political economy at that time, which saw the serfs till it at the mercy of their lords. This concept is discussed in this paper, as articulated by F.L. Ganshof and Lynn White against the concept of feudalism by Marc Bloch.
Feudalism as articulated by F.L. Ganshof and L. White
Feudalism was regarded as an administrative, martial, and societal creation that brought together the classes of aristocrats in medieval Europe and the vassalage by way of land as the uniting factor.
The principal advocate of this belief was F.L. Ganshof1, who viewed feudalism as a creation of the institutions that established and regulated the duties of obedience and service, mostly in military service, from the vassal towards the lord. In addition, there were reciprocal responsibilities of protection and upkeep on the lord the vassal. The lords would give out portions of lands to the vassals as goodies.
These portions of land were commonly known as fiefs. Feudalism to Ganshof was the possession of power by the lords in the form of land and its systematic transmission to the serfs.
Therefore, Ganshof’s observation and opinion were that classes had been effectively created by the feudal system, where the class of the lords or landowners protected and granted tenure of land to the vassals. Conversely, the vassals observed obedience and served the lords.2
Professor Lynn White, Jr., on her part, spoke of technological determinism. She used a set of writings to create her own compilation in 1962, known as, “Medieval Technology and Social Change”. This pamphlet contained a detailed discussion on technology and recent inventions of the middle ages, but more importantly it had a contentious theory regarding the foregoing issue of feudalism.
White3 reckons that the presence of technology during this age enabled the growth of the ambition of many lords, who would carry out spontaneous combat attacks on distant lands more easily.
She asserted that this was the impetus that drove a renowned man by the name Charles Martel to fast-track the annexation of lands that were held by the church. The lands were then distributed to his knights, who spent martial lives by buying expensive horses to back him in battle.
Additionally, White4 argued that there was a swing of political supremacy leaving the Mediterranean end of the planet and moving to the North of Europe. This wave of supremacy occurred as a result of the growing productivity in the technologized regions, whose farming was characterized by implements, such as improved carts for cultivation, improvement in harvest storage facilities, as well as industrialization.
These developments brought about a triple-annual harvest rotation for the lands. Professor White similarly studied the medieval machinery that improved motion and energy. All of this is what White refers to as the technological determinism of the people as a result of their empowerment for better lives through technological advancements.5
Marc Bloch on feudalism
Unlike the above two philosophers who wrote their opinions earlier in the ages, Marc Bloch came at a time when there was a doubling of people in the western European region, the agrarian revolution which had a three crop rotation, heavyweight ploughs, horse carts, and the windmills. All these technological advancements were used for the growth and advancement of food production.
Similarly, there was a huge growth in trade, which led to the development of urban areas and the rebirth of a cash economy.6 The progress that was achieved economically helped the rulers in Europe to get more power and developed the modern Europe.
As a result, Marc had to define feudalism according to his age and times. In 1939, he described the “feudal society” as where class was not determined as superior based on the earnings of its members, but its warrior supremacy. The warrior classes were closely knit.
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Fragmentations led to disorder, but the family set up and the state helped maintain the ties, with the state during the feudal age seeking to restore the tight bonds in society.7
In contrast to the above two writers, Marc described the feudal system as a fundamentally dysfunctional system that brought about many vices and a huge disparity in the lives and the classes of the people.
Though both F.L. Ganshof and Lynn White had criticized the structure and working of feudalism, unlike Marc, they did not view it as a failed system that ‘led inevitably to disorder’. Instead, they viewed the feudal system as inevitable in the system of life of the day and saw it as the default economic system.8
Bloch, Marc. Feudal Society. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Ganshof, François Louis. “II. Benefice and Vassalage in the Age of Charlemagne.” Cambridge Historical Journal 6, no. 02 (1939): 147-175.
White, Lynn Townsend. Medieval Technology and Social Change, Vol. 163. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964.
1 Louis François Ganshof, “II Benefice and Vassalage in the Age of Charlemagne,” Cambridge Historical Journal 6, no. 02 (1939), 147-175.
2 Louis François Ganshof, “II Benefice and Vassalage in the Age of Charlemagne,” Cambridge Historical Journal 6, no. 02 (1939), 147-175.
3 Townsend Lynn White, Medieval Technology and Social Change, Vol. 163 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964)
6 Marc, Bloch, Feudal Society (New York: Routledge, 2014)