Middle Ages and Feudalism
It is usual to talk about the Middle Ages and the Feudalism as if they were the same. On the other hand, these terms, as most of the vocabulary employed in history, have several and different meanings, sometimes even contradictory.
Intellectuals in the 15th century coined the expression “Middle Ages” to refer to an intermediateperiod between the Classic Antiquity (after the fall of Rome in the 5th century) and the time they were living in, what we denominate today “Renaissance” and the dawn of “Modernity” (Le Goff, “Europe, history of”).
Feudal, in contrast, was a juridical term referring the rights related to the fief that was a form to own land. Enlightenment thinkers and French Revolution’s legislators, who wantedto abolish “feudal rights”, coined the noun “feudalism”, as they believed that the relations surrounding the fief were the most important characteristics of the Middle Ages (Bloch; Le Goff).
It is necessary to confess that this expression, destined to be so successful, was a poor choice […] Contemporary to absolute monarchy, Boulainvilliers and Montesquieu thought that thefragmentation of sovereignty among a number of princes or even landlords, was the most apparent singularity of the Middle Ages. When they pronounced the word feudalism, they believed they were expressing this characteristic […] Especially, it is necessary to doubt that such a complex social organization can be fairly defined by either an exclusively political aspect or, if feudal is taken in its juridicalaspect, a form of royal right, among many others (Bloch 2).
Far of being the distinctive characteristics of the Middle Ages, fiefs, vassalage, knights, and castles are phenomena almost restricted to the North of Central Europe between the second half of the 8th century and the first decades of the 13th (Bloch VII).
For Enlightenment jurists, the medieval system that they wantedto destroy (what the French Revolution made) worked around the fief, was confined to it. From this juridical element of secondary importance (that cannot exist outside the social bound between the lord and the vassal), they generalized a global view about the Middle Ages (Le Goff 35).
On the other hand, Marxism popularized the term feudalism as “a mode of production” that was an intermediatestep between the slavery and the capitalism in Europe (say, between the 5th and the 16th or even the 18th centuries, as there is a debate among Marxists about the beginning of capitalism). The most important characteristics of feudalism according to Marxism are the existence of the peasantry’s bound to the land (serfdom) and a closed economy that made the fief self-sufficient.
We have toremember that for Marxism the history is the history of the exploitation of the man by the man, situation that would finish when communism freed humankind from private property and social classes. Medievalists had challenged this idea of the exploitation of serfdom by feudal lords, at least, we had to qualify it (frequently, serfdom considered the lord as their own father). On the other hand, thefief, the land granted as payment (fee) for services (from which the word feudal is born) (Collazo) is not central to the Marxist analysis. For example, Marxists use to discuss if Mexico during the colonial time or the porfiriato were feudal societies, which, obviously, have little to do with the Middle Ages.
Other example of the applying of the Marxist concept of feudalism is the discussionbetween Mensheviks and Bolsheviks at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Both started from the fact that czarist Russia was a feudal society that had to be transformed to reach communism. Mensheviks thought that, following the “natural” historical evolution, the party (the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party) had to promote the development of capitalism in that moment,...