For a considerable length of time feudalism has been studied as a phenomenon belonging exclusively to medieval western Europe, and indeed as distinguishing the history of this area from the history of other lands. It even has been supposed, not infrequently, that feudalism in all western countries was a homogeneous phenomenon, identical in substance. The fact has been obscured that feudal conditions established in one or another country in the West had their own peculiarities. Recently, however, the meaning of the term feudalism has grown broader; scholars have noted that the presence of feudalizing processes is to be found among different peoples in various parts of the earth and various epochs of history. The comparative historical method has eliminated an important historical prejudice that long dominated: that the complicated political, social, and economic phenomenon conventionally called feudalism belonged exclusively to the Middle Ages in western Europe. Therefore at present the term feudalism is used in two senses, one generic, the other specific.
West European feudalism in the Middle Ages is only one species of feudalism and is a concept used in the narrower sense of the word, while in the broader sense feudalism is a stage of culture through which, according to many historians and sociologists, all peoples pass in their historical development. No doubt the feudal process was far from reaching its complete development everywhere; for instance, sometimes the process was limited only to the social aspect and failed to attain political significance. Nevertheless, the transfer of this problem from the limits of western European medieval history into world history has allowed scholars to discover feudalism in ancient Egypt, in the Arab califate, in Japan, in the Islands of the Pacific Ocean, and in Old Russia. In each country where adequate conditions appear, feudalism in one or another stage of development is a phenomenon possible but not necessarily unavoidable.
Striking in its brevity and acumen is the definition of feudalism given by a Russian scholar, P. Vinogradov: Feudalism is marked by the territorial aspect of political relations and by the political aspect of territorial relations. Obviously this definition does not touch the economic aspect of the problem. But later that aspect was brought up and indeed emphasized by scholars, and now it must be considered.
Many different opinions, sometimes diametrically opposite, have been expressed concerning the origin of western European feudalism. Some scholars derive it from Germanic or Roman conditions existing at the turning-point from ancient to medieval history; some believe it to be the result of the Carolingian legislation; others try to explain this complicated institution by the social conditions of the almost unknown old Germanic life, especially the imaginary conditions of the old Germanic march. All these theories have now only historical significance and strikingly illustrate the amount of labor and sometimes excessive perspicacity which scholars expend to establish a complicated historical phenomenon, in this case feudalism, on a really scholarly basis.
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