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Feudalism” is neither a medieval term nor does it have a single, agreed upon definition. In recent decades, some historians have even questioned the historical and heuristic value of the term. Lordship, dependent tenures, and manors were real institutions in the eleventh through fourteenth centuries, even if the words used to connote them also bore other meanings and differed from region toregion. "Feudalism," on the other hand, is a historical construct that one must define before using. Like all historical constructs “feudalism,” however defined, describes an “ideal type” rather than any particular historical society. This article will begin with descriptions of the traditional models of feudalism, emphasizing the one favored by Anglophone historians, and then explain the currenthistoriographical controversies this term has generated.
The term 'feudal' was invented by Renaissance Italian jurists to describe what they took to be the common customary law of property. Giacomo Alvarotto's (1385-1453) treatise De feudis ("Concerning Fiefs") posited that despite regional differences the regulations governing the descent of aristocratic land tenure were derived from commonlegal principles, a customary shared 'feudal law.' This juridic concept of 'feudalism' was subsequently extended to cover the aggregate of institutions connected with the support and service of knights and with the descent of their tenures ("fiefs").

Traditionally, British and American historians have used "feudalism" as a short hand to describe a political,military, and social system that bound together the warrior aristocracy of Western Europe between ca. 1000 and ca. 1300. This "system," it is asserted, only gradually took shape, and differed in detail from region to region. Its key institutions were lordship, vassalage, and the fief. Lordship and vassalage represent the two sides of a personal bond of mutual loyalty and military service between noblesof different rank that found its roots in the Germanic war-band. The superior in this relationship was termed a lord, and the subordinate, who pledged loyalty and military service to his lord, was his “vassal.” A “fief” (Latin feudum) was a grant of land tenure or of revenues held by a vassal from a lord, whose property, in theory, the tenements remained, in return for specified services, whichwere usually a combination of military and social duties (e.g. attendance at the lord's court, hospitality to the lord and his men) and miscellaneous payments (“feudal incidents”) that reflected the lord's continued rights over the property. The most important of the services required from a fief-holder was knight service. When summoned to war by his lord, the holder of a fief was obliged to sendto the lord’s host or retinue the quota of knights owed from his fief. These knights were then to render the lord military service for a period of time fixed by custom, which amounted to forty days in thirteenth-century France and England. British and American historians have traditionally regarded knight service as the raison d’etre of “feudalism.” “Feudalism,” as defined in this fashion, can bethought of as a military recruitment system in which land tenure was exchanged for the service of heavily armed warriors on horseback.
In the Anglo-American paradigm, “feudalism” is associated with the fragmentation of central authority, as political power and jurisdictional in the tenth and eleventh centuries devolved into the hands of 'private' individuals, that is, of nobles who heldfranchises, immunities or banal rights. In theory the king stood at the apex of a feudal network of personal loyalty and land tenure, since he was the lord of lords and the ultimate source of all rights over land. Before the late twelfth century, however, feudal kings were often merely the first among equals, and their claims to authority often masked their limited actual power.
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