Feudalism and manorialism are both hierarchical ways of structuring societies that were present in the Middle Ages.
Feudalism was a kingdom-wide social structure that enabled a king to hold onto power by handing out land and influence to people loyal to the king, who in turn would control regions of the kingdom on behalf of the king.
Manorialism, on the other hand, was a smaller-scale rural social structure whereby a noble person would manage their large estate like a village, allowing peasants to live and work on the land in exchange for homage and tribute.
What is Feudalism?
‘Feudalism’ or a ‘feudal system’ refers to the socio-political and economic structure by which certain historic societies organized themselves.
It is mostly concerned with land distribution and management which, in turn, determined the power dynamics and relationships of different members of the society.
Feudalism originated and was most prominently implemented in Medieval Europe.
Structure of the Feudal System
The structure of the feudal system consisted of a clear and structured hierarchy to generate organized social stratification and power distribution:
- The Monarch: The monarch (King or Queen) of the kingdom was at the top, with possession of all the lands. All people within the land must pledge loyalty to the monarch.
- The Nobles: Second to the monarch were the nobles who then received land directly from the monarch to live on and manage on his/her behalf. The lords who had jurisdiction over these lands were often referred to as vassals.
- The Knights: The third tier included knights who offered protection to the monarch and nobility in return for payment and military service.
- The Peasants: Finally, the lowest tier of the feudal system was the peasants who were usually farmers by occupation. Within the peasant group were serfs who were essentially slaves of the nobility and would work for them in return for using their lands for farming. The difference between serfs and other peasants is that other peasants usually had ownership of their own small lands whereas serfs were denied home ownership.
Origins of Feudalism
Feudalism came about as the main eco-political system in England between the 5th and 6th centuries.
Historians dispute whether or not this systemic change was a gradual one.
1. The Rise of William the Conqueror
The orthodox perspective introduced by J. H. Round claims that feudalism was introduced to England after the Norman Conquest, when William the Conqueror introduced it.
Nevertheless, many also believe the idea that it came about as a result of politics becoming more divided, with multiple claims being made to one throne. The distribution of power helped to placate potential enemies.
2. Decentralization of Government
Another factor leading to the development of feudalism was the decentralization of governments.
A key example of this is of the Carolingian empire (8th century). The central government began to lose power, especially after the time of Charlemagne (771-814).
They were not strong enough and had poor bureaucratic organization of cavalry, which made keeping control of their lands much harder, especially when there were many landlords who had many loyal knights who would fight for them (as they received more incentives from these lords than from the central government).
The feudal lords would take advantage of the unstable condition of an empire and seize lands for themselves.
Examples of Feudalism
While English feudalism was most prominent, feudalism existed in many parts of Europe, and variations of it existed across the world.
1. The Kingdom of Leon
One example of European feudalism is Medieval France (between the 10th and 15th Century) and Portugal, part of the Kingdom of Leon at the time, where feudalism dates back to 868. However, once Portugal split from the Kingdom of Leon in 1139, feudalism came to an end.
2. The Patroon System
Surprisingly, European-style feudalism was briefly attempted in the North American colonies by the Dutch, which was called the “patroon system”.
The Patroon system was used in “New Netherlands” (modern-day New York) but all traces of it were abolished by 1775.
3. Asian Feudalism
Outside of European Feudalism, there were also similar feudal systems implemented in different Asian countries like China (where it is known as Fengjian) and the Indian Subcontinent (locally known as Zamindari system). Although the feudal system was abolished from China with the instatement of the Chinese Communist Party (1949), many argue that it is still practiced to a certain extent in parts of modern-day India and Pakistan, simply having adapted its form to modern times.
For example, Political parties gain votes by appealing to the local zamindar (equivalent to traditional lords in the European feudal system), who would then, in turn, use his influence to get votes from the ordinary villagers who depend on him or fear him. However, this is not a formal system and is not practiced in every village.
What is Manorialism?
Manorialism (also called the seignorial system) refers to a rural traditional economic system by which lords who had a certain (usually large) estate would distribute and manage their lands to maintain a good level of economic productivity.
It was essentially a way for the aristocracy to organize their lands and estate.
According to manorialism, the manor or estate of the lord (also known as the fief) was the centralized unit, to which almost an entire village of peasants would be bound.
The lord would distribute strips of land amongst free tenants who either pay rent for them or would then farm them and return favors to the lord, usually in the form of labor or financial tribute.
Sometimes the free tenants would also provide military service.
Under the lord and the tenants came serfs, who were normally not free people. They were bound to the lord by law and could not quit the manor.
These peasants usually possessed their own strip of land to farm and a cottage.
It was common for most Western European manors to comprise of the manor itself, the cottages, gardens, and farmland of the peasants along with some public facility like a church.
Some even had a mill or winery.
All the people who lived within this village were under the authority of the lord, who carried out and even created laws.
However, around the time of the 11th century as money began to make its way back into an increasingly centralized economy, the manorial system went into decline. Other factors which attributed to the decline of the manorial system were the Black Death plague (12th century) and crop failures which caused people to abandon estates that were disease-ridden and unproductive.
Examples of Manorialism
Manorialism was practiced across many European countries, including England and France.
1. Pre-Revolutionary France
France used this as the main system of organizing land tenure in rural areas until the French Revolution in 1799. In fact, it was the use of this type of system that caused many people to want to revolt against the status quo in the 1780s.
To this day, tourists can go to see reconstructed areas of the Versailles palace that were part of its manorial system.
2. Eastern Europe
Manorialism was also a prominent system of organizing land tenure in many Eastern European countries like Russia, Germany, and Poland. However, it followed a slightly different timeline than that in Western Europe.
Eastern European manorialism went into decline between the 12th and 13th centuries but came back into commonality in the 15th century with instability being created from the many wars being fought between Eastern European kingdoms at the time.
Similarities Between Feudalism and Manorialism
1. Strict Hierarchies
Both feudalism and manorialism are hierarchal structures that have an impact on how society is organized, the relationships and power dynamics of different groups of society and the eco-political workings of the society.
2. Land Distribution and Management
Both these systems are centered on land distribution and management and both have a central focus on labor in exchange for protection, land, and other commodities (instead of money exchange).
Both manorialism and feudalism were practiced in the middle-ages and were, to some extent, practiced simultaneously as part of the feudal system of governance. Lords, who divvied out land under a federal feudalist system, may have simultaneously operated their own private estates via a manorial structure (i.e. they would allow peasants to work their private land.
Differences Between Feudalism and Manorialism
Although feudalism and manorialism do share many similarities in their structure and characteristics, they have some important differences which set them apart.
1. Political vs Economic Orientations
Firstly, Manorialism is more focused on social and economic matters, particularly rural economy, whereas feudalism, whilst also sharing this aspect, is more focused on political aspects.
Feudal societies are concerned with maintaining the authority of the monarch (i.e. a political orientation) by managing the lands and factors of production and appeasing the nobility in return for support. A manorial system is a smaller-scale economic agreement between a private landholder and peasants.
Feudalism was of a larger (kingdom-wide) scale of land distribution whereas manorialism was a small-scale private estate venture undertaken by a lord.
Feudalism places more importance on the relationship of the monarch and the nobles and their knights in the setting of the overall kingdom, whereas, manorialism focuses more on the relationship between the nobility (the lords) and the peasants in the rural setting of the manor.
Manorialism and Feudalism both overlap considerably. It is possible, particularly in the case of Europe, to view manorialism as a rural economic system that gave birth to the larger and more extensive eco-political ideology that is feudalism.
Hence, both of these systems have almost the same characteristics but differ in their significance and purpose.
Hattersley, A. F. (1914). Origin and Significance of Feudalism. History, 3(3), 137–140. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44990189
White, S. D. (1975). English Feudalism and Its Origins [Review of Origins of English Feudalism, by R. A. Brown]. The American Journal of Legal History, 19(2), 138–155. https://doi.org/10.2307/844803
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.