The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics

2018 Edition
| Editors: Macmillan Publishers Ltd


  • Robert Brenner
Reference work entry


Modern discussions of feudalism have been bedevilled by disagreement over the definition of that term. There are three main competing conceptualizations. (1) Feudalism refers strictly to those social institutions which create and regulate a quite specific form of legal relationship between men. It constitutes a relationship in which a freeman (vassal) assumes an obligation to obey and to provide, primarily military, services to an overlord who, in turn, assumes a reciprocal obligation to provide protection and maintenance, typically in the form of a fief, a landed estate to be held by the vassal on condition of fulfilment of obligations (Bloch 1939–40). (2) Feudalism refers, more broadly, to a form of government or political domination. It is a form of rule in which political power is profoundly fragmented geographically; in which, even within the smallest political units, no single ruler has a monopoly of political authority; and in which political power is privately held, and can thus be inherited, divided among heirs, given as a marriage portion, mortgaged, and bought and sold. Finally, the armed forces involve, as a key element, a heavy armed cavalry which is secured through private contracts, whereby military service is exchanged for benefits of some kind (Strayer 1965; Ganshof 1947). (3) Feudalism refers to a type of socio-economic organization of society as a whole, a mode of production and of the reproduction of social classes. It is defined in terms of the social relationships by which its two fundamental social classes constitute and maintain themselves. Specifically, the peasants, who constitute the overwhelming majority of the producing population, maintain themselves by virtue of their possession of their full means of subsistence, land and tools, so require no productive contribution by the lords to survive. This possession is secured by means of the peasants’ collective political organization into self-governing communities, which stand as the ultimate guardian of the individual peasants’ land. As a result of the peasants’ possession and their consequent economic independence, mere ownership of property cannot be assumed to yield an economic rent; in consequence, the lords are obliged to maintain themselves by appropriating a feudal levy by the exercise of extra-economic coercion. The lords are able to extract a rent by extra-economic coercion only in consequence of their political self-organization into lordly groups or communities, by means of which they exert a degree of domination over the peasants, varying in degree from enserfment to mere tribute taking (Marx 1894; Dobb 1946).


Capitalist property relations Class Colonization Demesne production Diversified production Dobb, M. H. Exchange Feudalism Marx, K. H. Peasant economy Peasants Population growth Pre-capitalist property relations Subsistence Sweezy, P. M. Vassalage 

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  • Robert Brenner
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