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In the social sciences , feudalism ( Latin feudum / feodum ' fiefdom ') primarily describes the social and economic form of the European Middle Ages .

Concept history

The term was coined in France in the early Age of Enlightenment , made famous by Montesquieu in 1748 and explained in particular by Voltaire . In the French Revolution of 1789 it played a major role as a battle term to characterize the earlier economic and social order. In the German-speaking world, the term feudalism came up at the beginning of the 19th century. Karl Marx later classified feudalism as a necessary preliminary stage of capitalism . The term was not or is not used as a self-designation for a social order.


An ideal typical feudal society can be described by the following characteristics:

  • A sovereign allows his military followers to use parts of his land, including the residents on it, for their material supply.
  • The feodum is a beneficium transferred to fiefdom ( i.e. a beneficium in the initial basic principle only for loan), i.e. a benefit in the sense of a property, which is suitable and intended according to its soil condition and personnel equipment (including the associated structural and equipment equipment), To generate income to support the tenant.
  • In connection with the feudal estates, lordship and economic conditions develop over time, which are legalized and which exclude the group of people who are intended for land cultivation (farmers) from the social organizational structure in the sense of state-political will formation
  • and which at the same time counteract the development of a closed state administration towards the top, towards the highest sovereign.

Strictly speaking, the term feudalism therefore includes two separate dimensions:

  1. the relationship of the supreme sovereign to the warrior class and their allegiance and
  2. the power relations of the class endowed with fiefs downwards to the non-feudal population.

The production of feudalism is strongly influenced by the natural economy . The majority of the population consists of farming families. But they are not the owners of the land they cultivate. This land is owned by the few landlords . The peasants are in a state of bondage , so they are personally dependent on the landlord and not free.

That means:

  • They are bound to the plaice (the land to be cultivated ) ( glebae adscripti ) and do not have the right to leave it because they are part of the economic goods of the feudal estate.
  • They are subject to the justice of their Lord.
  • They owe the landlord dues, both in the form of labor ( Fron ) on the land directly cultivated by the landlord (Salland) and in the form of contributions in kind, which have to be raised from the piece of land they cultivate themselves ( tithe ). In the course of development, compulsory labor or levies in kind can also be replaced by money levies.

The property of the landlord is also only conditional, because he has received it as a fiefdom from a higher-ranking nobleman, to whom he owes military service and whose vassal he is.

The assessment of feudalism as an economic system also includes the observation that part of the feudal lord's income is redistributed as patriarchal alms, as a gift to "loyal" vassals or the like. It is part of the feudal lord's job to seek compensation concern (which in reality was rarely fully fulfilled by the feudal lords - in addition, the then ideal of justice sometimes deviated quite significantly from what is understood today).

The chain of these dependent fiefdoms connected with military service extends to the king , whose sovereign domain is ultimately all land. In the medieval imagination, however, he is only a vassal, he is subordinate to God. The political sovereignty is quasi parceled down. In this system the king is only the head of his vassals, to whom he is bound by mutual bonds of fiefdom, but he has no direct access to his subjects.

This results in a certain development dynamic:

  1. The village common land , the common land, survived for a long time from the Germanic times . The fragmentation of sovereignty made it difficult for the feudal lords to take possession of this land and strengthened the position of the peasants.
  2. The subdivision of sovereignty supported the existence and development of cities . The townspeople dealt with handicrafts and trade and fought for autonomy over time (see also under municipalities ).
  3. The fragmentation of sovereignty can lead to chaotic conditions and thus endanger the existence of the feudal state. Therefore the kings strove to extend their rights beyond pure feudal relationships and to establish direct relationships with their subjects, for example in the form of the right to levy taxes. As a result, they came into conflict with the nobility .
  4. The church , part of the state apparatus in antiquity, became an independent institution in the Middle Ages , which also became feudal. This results in frequent tensions between secular and religious rulers, which could lead to a rift in feudal legitimacy . An example of this is the investiture dispute .

In some places, individual aspects of feudalism could be preserved for a long time in societies that were no longer feudal. Scottish real estate law followed a system known as feudal tenure until 2002 , in which, for example, the buyer of a property became a formal vassal of a feudal lord.

Origin and history

The feudal society emerged in the early Middle Ages through a merger of the dissolving ancient society and the Germanic societies. After the Great Migration , several Germanic kingdoms emerged in the area of ​​the former Roman Empire . The feudal institutions described above did not develop until after the year 800 in the empire of the Franks , when a formerly partly free peasantry was economically ruined by constant wars and invasions by the Vikings , Saracens , Magyars etc. and thus forced into dependence on the feudal lords . But there were also violent incorporations by feudal lords (for example Stedinger War ).

  • In areas that are now part of Germany , the beginnings of feudalism lie in the 9th century and in the 12th century it reached its high mediaeval form with the emergence of first serfdom, which is primarily referred to by Marxist literature . In the 16th century, there was a reassessment of the power relations, which in Germany east of the Elbe lead to so-called second serfdom , while in other parts of Germany absolutism demonstratively pushed the symbolic charging of the sovereign and nobility with power, but at the same time a unification of the state of is initiated down above. The bourgeois revolution of 1848 is considered to be the end of feudal principles of rule in Germany (with the exception of Mecklenburg: there in 1918).
  • The core region of European feudalism was the north of what is now France , which corresponded to the ideal feudal system much more than any other region. Here there was a uniquely dense fiefdom hierarchy with various levels of subinfeudation .
  • In southern Europe ( Spain , Languedoc , Italy ) the remnants of antiquity were stronger. Thus, relatively much more land was an absolute, non-feudal allod (property). In addition, the cities did not disappear as largely as in Northern Europe and they experienced a new heyday in Languedoc and Italy as early as the 10th century.
  • In Northern Europe ( Saxony , England , Scandinavia ) with stronger remnants of the Germanic societies, it took much longer before serfdom was established. In Saxony and partly in other areas of Germany up to the 12th century. In Sweden it was never fully established, and not at all in Norway. In England, on the other hand, the autonomous people's jurisdiction never completely disappeared. Common law developed from it .


According to Günter Vogler , Germany and Europe reached the epoch of transition from feudalism to capitalism at the end of the 15th century , whereby the constitutive characteristics for the type of early bourgeois revolutions were achieved. Europe entered the epoch of bourgeois revolutions in which the bourgeoisie gradually fought for political power. While the bourgeois class gradually established itself in the Netherlands and England, the bourgeoisie in central and eastern Europe suffered setbacks in overcoming the medieval feudal order. The nobility held their positions of power there until the late 19th century.

Refeudalization in the narrower sense means the restoration of a feudal order, i.e. the return to original forms of feudal organization of politics, economy and society, as occurred in southern and southeastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Neo feudalism

Neo-feudalism means the partial or comprehensive introduction of feudalism-analogous organizational forms in politics, economy and society during the high phase of capitalist development.

National Socialist rule

Based on the concept of feudalism, the American historian Robert Lewis Koehl coined the term “neo-feudalism” to characterize National Socialist rule, especially in the German-occupied East, where German rule was personalized and local commanders had absolute power. Pointing to the similarities between the charismatic elements of medieval and National Socialist rule, he tried to clarify the irrational aspects of National Socialism. Koehl's assumption that these feudalistic power relations arose from the atavistic ideology of National Socialism, but the more recent research does not follow.

Staging of the public

In view of current developments in the 20th and 21st centuries, social scientists like Jürgen Habermas speak of a re- feudalization of society today . It

“This development threatens what one could call a refeudalization of society: a society in which wealth and poverty are 'inherited' within demarcated social groups, and not just through the passing on or the lack of material goods, but - far earlier and more profound in terms of socialization - in particular through the social determination of educational and career opportunities. Today the chances of a child from a family with a high social status to start studying are more than seven times greater than that of a working class child. A 'nobility of opportunities' on the one hand, on the other hand the groups of the dispossessed and the lack of resources with no prospects. "

Characteristics are among other things the increasing inequality of the distribution of wealth , the mere staging of the public, the representation of particular interests of persons or associations as general interests, the exclusion of the public in decisions of public interest, social origin as a decisive factor for prosperity.

Financial market capitalism

In Germany in particular, Christoph Butterwegge sees neofeudalism in financial market capitalism , especially with regard to the “completely inadequate” inheritance tax. "The Federal Republic of Germany is now a true inheritance, capital and profit tax paradise." The special tax treatment of corporate heirs is driving the state privileges for capital owners in civil society to extremes.

Inherited status, manager class

In financial market capitalism of the Hamburg sociologists opinion Sighard Neckel income and power distributed to pre-modern patterns. "While on the one hand that the number constantly growing working under conditions that are more reminiscent of serfdom and slavery as to bourgeois-capitalist contractual relationships, are in the main floor distributes privileges to just pre-modern methods: wealth is inherited especially a The class of managers organized as a corporate class buys exorbitant salaries. ”Historian Olaf Kaltmeier argues in the same direction for Latin America, which in the early 21st century sees a tendency towards refeudalization .

See also


  • Perry Anderson : From Antiquity to Feudalism. Traces of the transition society (original title: Passages from antiquity to feudalism ). Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt / M. 1981, ISBN 3-518-10922-7 .
  • Harold J. Berman : Law and Revolution. The formation of the western legal tradition . 2nd Edition. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt / M. 2009, ISBN 978-3-518-28803-0 .
  • Marc Bloch : The Feudal Society (original title: La societé féodale ). Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 1999, ISBN 3-608-91234-7 .
  • Otto Brunner : "Feudalism". A contribution to the conceptual history (= treatises of the humanities and social science class of the Academy of Sciences and Literature in Mainz. Born 1958, No. 10).
  • Jan Dhondt : The early Middle Ages (= Fischer Weltgeschichte . Volume 10). Fischer paperback, Frankfurt am Main 1968.
  • Georges Duby : The three orders. The worldview of feudalism (original title: Les trois ordres ou l'imaginaire du féodalisme ). Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt / M. 1993, ISBN 3-518-28196-8 .
  • Natalie Fryde (ed.): The presence of feudalism (original title: The presence of feudalism ). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2002, ISBN 3-525-35391-X .
  • Alain Guerreau : L'avenir d'un passé incertain. Source histoire du moyen age au XXI siècle . Édition Le Seuil, Paris 2001, ISBN 2-02-049697-6 .
  • Alain Guerreau: Fief, féodalité, féodalisme. Enjeux sociaux et réflexion historienne . In: Annales. Economies, sociétés, civilizations . 45: 137-166 (1990).
  • Friedrich-Wilhelm Henning : German agricultural history of the Middle Ages. 9th to 15th centuries . Ulmer, Stuttgart 1994, ISBN 3-8001-3092-0 .
  • Hans Kammler : The feudal monarchies. Political and economic-social factors of their development and functioning , Böhlau, Cologne 1974, ISBN 3-412-02474-0 .
  • Max Weber : Agricultural Conditions in Antiquity (3rd version). In: Concise Dictionary of Political Science . Volume 1, 3rd edition. Jena 1909, pp. 52-188.
  • Ludolf Kuchenbuch : Marx and Feudalism - On the development of the concept of feudalism in the work of Karl Marx . Philosophical Conversations Volume 24. Helle Panke e. V. - Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Berlin. Berlin, 2012, 72 pp.

Web links

Commons : Feudalism  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: feudal  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


  1. ^ Andy Wightman: The Abolition of Feudal Tenure etc. (Scotland) Act 2000. A Practical Guide for Community Groups.
  2. Martin Roy: Luther in the GDR: On the change in the image of Luther in GDR historiography; with a documentary reproduction, Volume 1 of Studies on the History of Science, Dr. Dieter Winkler, 2000, p. 195
  3. ^ Robert Koehl: Feudal Aspects of National Socialism (1960). In: Neil Gregor (ed.): Nazism . Oxford UP, Oxford 2000, p. 183.
  4. The competition of organized private interests against the neo-mercantilism of an interventionist administration [leads] to a refeudalization of society, because with the intertwining and private sphere not only political authorities have certain functions in the sphere of trade in goods and social work, but also, conversely, social powers political Take over functions. Jürgen Habermas: Structural change in the public sphere , studies on a category of civil society. Frankfurt am Main 1990, pp. 336f.
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  5. Rainer Forst : The first question of justice. 2005 p. 24.
  6. ^ Jürgen Habermas : Structural change of the public
    Sighart Neckel: Refeudalisierung der Ökonomie. Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Cologne 2010.
    Rainer Forst: The first question of justice , 2005.
  7. ^ Neofeudalism in financial market capitalism. Junge Welt from September 25, 2015.
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