The Benefits and Drawbacks of Feudalism in Medieval Europe

Diagram of a manor during Medieval times main

European feudalism was an economic, political, and social system practiced in the Middle Ages. Land was granted in return for labor and military support. There are various benefits and disadvantages involved. Feudalism was suitable for the times, encouraged local control, and stability, and maintained a set of values.  Meanwhile, it promoted inequality, a weak central government, was insecure in various ways, and hindered advancement.  

What Is Feudalism?

The word “feudalism” arises from a “fief,” the name given to the basic self-sufficient unit of land during the Middle Ages.  Feudalism had social, political, and economic aspects.

The Middle Ages lasted from around 500-1500 CE. Before this time, the Roman Empire controlled Western Europe.  The empire broke apart and feudalism developed.  

Feudalism was a system where land was granted in return for labor and military support.  It was largely an agricultural society.  Small villages grew up around the farms to serve their needs.  

Peasants farmed the land.  Local nobility (knights) controlled the land in return for military service to the king.  There was a weak center of power and Western Europe was split up into many small kingdoms.  The Catholic Church was very powerful and had a large role in social life. 

What Were The Benefits Of Feudalism? 

[1]  Suitable For The Needs Of The Time

The Fall of the Roman Empire resulted in a power vacuum in Western Europe.  

There was no longer a strong central government to provide basic needs, including defending people from bandits and foreign invaders.  A new local-based system had to be developed.  

Feudalism was suitable for the needs of the times. There was no longer a strong central government so small communities had to be self-sufficient.  

It was a sensible type of society for agricultural-based times when the economy was based on land, not the cash-based system of modern capitalism.  

Meanwhile, the layers of control (peasants, nobles, king) still enabled smaller communities to join together into larger ones.  Loose confederations developed, extending power bases.  

[2]  Stability

Each group in society had a place.  Peasants farmed their land generation after generation.  Peasants, nobles, and kings had responsibilities based on how things had always gone.  

The Church helped by setting forth basic social rules for everyone to follow.  A son followed in the footsteps of their father. Life might be hard at times with disease, famine, or the occasional war,  but it followed a certain expected ebb and flow.  

Feudalism provided peace and security.  

[3]  Local Control

A person interested in federalism, the division of local and national government, might find feudalism a useful model.  Local control thrived based on their specific needs. 

Peasants had a large degree of self-control as long as they provided a certain amount of goods and services to their local lord.  Local estates (called “manors”) were self-sufficient, providing all the basic needs for the community.  Smaller units were easier to govern.  

Meanwhile, each local noble was not merely a self-sufficient unit.  They were part of a larger kingdom.  They joined together to serve the king and protect a wider area of territory.  

[4]  Values  

Feudalism was not just an economic and political system.  It was also a system of values. 

A basic system of obligation is in place.  Everybody has a responsibility to someone else.  Peasants provided goods and services in return for land and security.  Nobles had obligations to peasants and the king.  Everyone served the Church, which in return protected everyone’s souls.

Knights developed a code of honor called “chivalry.”  Feudalism was a theocracy, with church rules being followed, including in matters of family life.  

What Were the Disadvantages? 

[1]  Inequality

Feudalism was a class-based society.  Those with power were able to abuse those without it.  The lack of a strong government and justice system made things worse.  

Peasants were not allowed to leave the land without permission.  Different degrees of nobility arose, not based on merit alone, but on who your parents might be.  

It also was a male-dominated world, with power passing from father to son.  Women sometimes had power.  Women had important roles on farms and in village businesses.  But, there was no equality of the sexes.  Men controlled married life too in a system known as “coverture.”   

[2]  Weak National Control 

A king had limited power.  The central government was weak.  

This limited the ability to have a large, powerful country.  It made kingdoms more open to invasion and less able to address the needs of the people as a whole.  

A system of self-sufficient small territories limited trade.  A powerful government also is important for the development of industry, including regulations and infrastructure.  

[3]  Insecurity

Feudal life was insecure in a variety of ways.  

A system of small communities resulted in nobility fighting over land.  Warfare was a common occurrence during the Middle Ages.  A bad crop or outbreak of disease could be disastrous.  

[4]  Lack of Development

Each community also was isolated from the others.  People often spent their whole lives without traveling a few miles away from their homes.   It was a limited existence.

There was limited room for advancement.  A person had little chance to do better than their parents or try something new.  Their roles in life were fixed.  

There was a limited need for industry, including a small market for goods.  Land is a fixed thing, unlike the flexibility of money and trade goods.  This blocked development and expansion.  

Feudalism After the Middle Ages

A range of developments led to the decline of feudalism, the growth of the industrial revolution, and the current post-industrial world that we live in today.  

Meanwhile, European powers spread their control to the Americas, Africa, and Asia.  The colonial system spread feudalism into new locations.  The results linger on in some form today.

Feudalism now seems like something only found in medieval tales of yore.  But, in its own time, there was a place for the system though its disadvantages in time helped us move past it.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.