copyright: Jouko Nurmiainen 1998




Concept of Feudalism and 20th Century Historical Writing, English Summary



General History, Department of History, Faculty of Arts, University of Helsinki, Finland

Master's thesis, March 1998, 136 pages



One of the most important concepts of the medieval history has traditionally been the feudalism. However, it has been explained in so many different (even contradictional) ways that some historians have begun to doubt its usefulness. Some historians have even asked if there are any reasonable arguments to justify the concept. This study makes an attempt to answer this question by creating the overall picture about the different ways to use the concept "feudalism" in the 20th century historical writing. However, this paper is focused on the feudal society and feudalism concerning the western parts of the medieval Europe.

The feudalism is not a medieval word. It was created in the early modern age by some well-known scholars of the jurisprudence. According to a traditional (narrow) definition, "feudalism" should then be strictly connected to the fiefs and the history of jurisprudence. In recent years this opinion has been criticised: the fief-related history of jurisprudence oversimplifies the past.

Another (wide) definition of the feudalism was built on the basis created by the philosophers in the Age of Reason. According to this definition, the concept means the medieval mode of production which was made possible by the labour of peasant serfs. Discourses related to the feudal mode of production have also led to other discourses: so called "transition debates" opened the way for the debates about the rise of the western capitalism and its uniqueness.

The concept of the feudalism was given a whole new meaning in 1930s: the French historian Marc Bloch began to use the word in unconventionally wide and "total" sense. He disconnected the word from its ethymological roots. The concept of the feudal society was born to represent the common features of the history of medieval Europe.

After the World War II quite many provincial "total" histories about medieval themes has been written, especially in France. This genre prepared the way for the debate about the transformation of the year one thousand the debate which includes the hotly argued concept of the "feudal revolution" invented by the French scholar Georges Duby in 1970s. Today the winning side claims that this concept is good enough to be used to describe the social rupture of the 11th century Western Europe. During this period the newborn class of knights managed to acquire the status as a ruling class of the society. Their social rise was the result of a common use of violence in society. If we liked to call this process a "feudal" one, the word "feudalism" should be understood in a "wide, total, Blochian" way, because the role of the legally granted fiefs is not very important in this transformation.

Key words: feudalism, the history of concepts, the transformation of the 11th century, Marc Bloch