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Peasants at work before the gates of a town. Miniature painting from the Breviarium Grimani, c. late 15th century.
The terms feudalism and feudal system enabled historians to deal summarily with a long span of European history whose complexities were—and remain—confusing. The Roman Empire and the various emperors’ accomplishments provided a key to understanding Roman history, and the reemergence of states and strong rulers in the 12th century again furnished manageable focal points for historical narrative, particularly since medieval states and governmental practices can be presented as antecedents of modern nations and institutions. The feudal construct neatly filled the gap between the 5th and the 12th century. Although Charlemagne may seem an anomaly in this evolution, he was presented as “sowing the seeds” from which feudalism emerged. A variety of Roman, barbarian, and Carolingian institutions were considered antecedents of feudal practices: Roman lordship and clientage, barbarian war chiefdoms and bands, grants of lands to soldiers and to officeholders, and oaths of loyalty and fidelity. In the 17th century, as later, the high point of feudalism was located in the 11th century. Later rulers who adopted and adapted feudal institutions to increase their power were labeled “feudal” and their governments called “feudal monarchies.” Despite the survival of institutions and practices associated with the medieval feudal system in the 17th century, historians of that time presented medieval feudalism and the feudal system as declining in importance in the 14th and 15th centuries. This period was later dubbed an age of “bastard feudalism” because of the use of salaries and written contracts between lords and dependents.
Those who formulated the concept of feudalism were affected by the search for simplicity and order in the universe associated with the work of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) and especially Isaac Newton (1642–1727). Historians and philosophers were persuaded that if the universe operated systematically, so too must societies. In the 16th century some students of the law and customs of the fief declared that feudal institutions were universal and maintained that feudal systems had existed in Rome, Persia, and Judaea. The philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) considered the fief one of humankind’s eternal institutions. Adopting a similar position, Voltaire (1694–1778) contested the judgment of Montesquieu (1689–1755) that the appearance of feudal laws was a unique historical event. The philosophical historians of 18th-century Scotland searched for feudalism outside western Europe, and they expanded the construct’s field of significance to encompass peasants as well as lords. Adam Smith (1723–90) presented feudal government as a stage of social development characterized by the absence of commerce and by the use of semi-free labour to cultivate land. Smith’s student John Millar (1735–1801) found “the outlines of the feudal policy” in Asia and Africa. The association popularly made between the feudal construct and ignorance and barbarism fostered its extension to regions which Europeans scarcely knew and which they considered backward and primitive.