Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Within this text is an outline of the social structure of feudal society, along with the customary controls over authoritative and allocative resources. The foundation of the feudal economy is agriculture. Therefore, wealth and power derive itself from landownership. In order to maintain and perpetuate society, it was necessary to control the output of the land. The peasants and their labour, were the human machines that worked the land producing wealth for the higher classes. Therefore it was of great importance to chain the peasantry to the land and to their lords.

Feudal society organizes itself through a series of parallel ladders, where those at the bottom pay tribute to those on the higher step. The peasants, mostly slaves and serfs, represent the lowest echelon of society. The next step above this wretched class are the lesser nobles. These families are landowners and would generally be a vassal of a greater lord. The next step is a similar relationship, however it is a lord and vassal relationship between the greater nobles and the Monarch. Sayer explains, “The summit of feudal society became ordered as a hierarchy of lord-vassal relations, extending form kings, through the greater lords – counts, dukes, barons – to lesser nobles, down to the humbler lord of the single manor.” (Sayer, 1993, p.75).

We note a series of parallel social ladders, as the Monarch did not necessarily have complete visibility within the lands of his vassals. By way of example, we may refer to Sayer's description of King Philip VI of France's survey of his kingdom. Attempting to figure out his own tax base, the King's survey did not include many of the lesser lordships as well as six of the greatest fiefs. A great King of the medieval era did not possess the political power necessary to properly gather demographical data in his own lands in order to levy taxes. (Sayer, 1993, p.77) Sayer describes a Lord as a “[...] local sovereign, and this devolution of political, juridical, and fiscal powers was central to each individual lord's personal domination over his peasants.” (Sayer, 1993, p.76) Consequently, the Monarch's primary economic survival derives from the wealth generating from within their own lands. Anderson writes, “His economic resources would lie virtually exclusively in his personal domains as a lord, while his calls on his vassals would be essentially military in nature.” (Anderson, 1974, p.88).

Simply, the feudal society rests upon landowners leveraging agricultural output from the workers renting from their land. Hilton describes, “A peasant economy is one in which the large majority of the population consists of families who cultivate crops and rear animals on their individual holdings.” (Hilton, 1973, p.56). Anderson adds specificity, by describing the peasant in this mode of production. He writes, “The immediate producer – the peasant – was united to the means of production – the soil – by a specific social relationship.” (Anderson, 1974, p. 86). This social relationship consists of workers, either slaves or serfs, providing the lord a payment in the form of surplus goods, labour and later in the feudal era, cash payments. These payments, much like the mafia of industrial society, provided them with security during violent and turbulent times. The matrix of social dependency required a system of inequality in order to create wealth for a minority of people. This inequality is maintained by control over authoritative resources and allocative resources.

Allocative resources are productive forces, the generation of economic wealth. Control over the spheres of production, primarily accomplishes itself through landownership. Lords, the greater nobility, the Monarch and the Church all removed the ability of the lower class to own land. Each worker was forced to pay tribute by surrendering crops, labour and money in order to maintain some basic subsistence and security. Furthermore, these labourers were forced to surrender their body as military units in times of war. Monasteries increased their control over the nobility through landownership and usurping the fruits of the labour from the peasants. Sayer describes rent as a responsibility hooked to tenancy, what was owed in return for living. He notes that “Rent took three main forms: direct labour services on the lord's demesne, an obligation to work a stipulated number of days per year, rent in kind, or a portion of the crops produced within the peasant's own holding; and (far less common until later in the medieval period) rent in cash.” (Sayer, 1993, p.78).

Furthermore, the internal judicial system of the lord of the land permitted him the ability to further control the productive forces. Agrarian societies rely heavily on the ability of their land to grow crops and grazing areas for their animals. Consequently, regulation of common grazing areas fell into the lap of the lord. This regulation of these areas, was of great importance to the communities that found themselves in close geographic proximity. Grazing rights, during the feudal era, translates into the nobility's capacity to dictate which families were allowed to send their animals for extra feed. Furthermore, the importance of these areas created a secondary regulatory system amongst the local community. The families became very closed to accepting new comers into their lands, as that meant sharing more grazing area and time. Hilton explains, “Even where the actual forum for these decisions was the court of the lord of the village, it seems normally to have been the villagers as much as, if not more than, the lord who operated the controls.” (Hilton, 1973, p.60).

The upper classes of society held very little regard for the peasant class. Hilton tells us that “The gentry and nobility regarded peasants as different creatures from themselves, almost as a different race.” (Hilton, 1973, p.60). We can therefore assume that, imposing methods of social stratification to nail down a system of inequality, most likely held very few moral quarrels amongst the noble population. Patriarchy, education and hereditary social class are examples of control over authoritative resources. These systems permitted the gentry the ability to perpetuate social inequality.

Some will argue, that the male domination in a feudal society is necessary for a dual support system, designed to maintain an agrarian method of production. Women would clean, tend to the children, cook and mend clothing in order to support the men who worked the fields, looked after the livestock and were called to war. The clergy further entrenched this system by claiming that it was ordained by God. The Clergy would use biblical accounts of history in order to entrench the natural order of a subservient gender. Marx would argue that this is simply an ideology used to maintain an economic system (Marxist, 2000). Furthermore, he would claim that patriarchy came about by way of historical determinism. Therefore, this would mean that the feudal system of patriarchy was not necessary, it simply came about as historical habit. Regardless of its origins, the system did force authoritative control into the hands of men. Consequently, unless born into nobility, women would only have a support role, consisting of maintaining materialistic necessities for the labouring men. In turn, men would promote agricultural output and thus generate wealth for the landowners.

As well, the Church held the monopoly on literacy. The Christian hierarchy, one of the greater land ownership classes, was able to use its power to manipulate society into believing in the divine order of things. The vehicle leveraged to accomplish this feat of ignorance, was the denial of basic education. The peasant class was denied the ability to learn how to read and write. The multitude of priests and churchmen acted as gatekeepers, administering the sacraments, the path to salvation (Hilton, 1973) rather then disseminating literacy. As these people held the holy chalice of education within their private realm, the imposed ignorance obliged the peasant to believe in the instructions of the clergy. “All these preachers exhorted their audiences to be diligent in all the necessary practices of their religion and to observe the moral code promulgated by the church. In addition, they explained in simple terms what was the nature of the society in which men lived.” (Hilton, 1973, p.75). Pursuant with a Marxian dialogue, this process further alienated the peasant class from themselves and allowed them to believe in a world that was better then the one in which they lived. Therefore, the shackles of false consciousness (Marxists, 1968) allowed the peasantry to continue toiling with very little protest as they believed a happier life awaited them upon death.
Further entrenching the permanency of the feudal system of inequality, is the hereditary nature of one's social class, the caste system. This denied people any kind of social mobility. An individual born as a peasant was essentially condemned to the harsh life of the peasantry. Hereditary class was also supported by family land inheritance. Should you be born into a family who lived for generations on a specific holding, you were further sown onto a class by being shackled to an inherited prison. There was a social and cultural expectation that you would toil and work the land in order to perpetuate the generation of wealth for the lord of the land. Indeed, any refutation of these responsibilities were met with harsh consequences. Hilton elaborates, “A strong sense of family right also implied the consequential attitude that the family should be able to devote all of its labour to the cultivation and maintenance of the holding. This feeling lay behind the objections to the acquittal of rent obligations in the form of labour services on the lord's demesne, though other factors, such as the equation of forced labour under the coercion of the lord's bailiff with serfdom or slavery, were involved as well.” (Hilton, 1973, p.66).

However, patriarchy, education and hereditary social class alone, cannot completely bind a peasant into a position of dependency. Peasants were also excluded from public law and their courts. This removed any form of justice for the common labourer, save through their immediate families. The nobility closely regulated the labourer and bound them to their customary law, thus any true sense of freedom was simply a romantic concept. (Hilton, 1973). Therefore, the peasant was forced into a servile way of life with the sole purpose of providing rent to their respective lords. Hilton notes that “The three most common obligations, often used as a test of servility, were: a restriction on marriage outside the lordship, other than with the lord's permission; the right of the lord to take part or the whole of the tenant's chattels at death, thus emphasizing that an unfree person had no rights of ownership in property; and the payment of an annual tax, the capitagium or chevage, as a recognition of the tenant's perpetual subordination to the lord.” (Hilton, 1973, p.80). By manipulating the expansion of a family, removing any rights to property and insisting on annual taxation, the lord successfully bound the peasant and his future generations, into a perpetual state of servitude. This forms the infrastructure of the control over authoritative resources.

Consequently, feudal society was able to perpetuate itself by controlling peasant's social and geographic mobility. Divinely rooting their bondage to the nobility, the upper classes were able to lock the working class into centuries of toil and servitude. Women and men of common hereditary classes were unable to secure any property or any rights. Institutions and customs excluded the peasantry from any mechanisms of social mobility and acquisition of greater wealth. The draconian control over land and title put the absolute control of allocative resources into the hands of the upper classes. Marx provides us with an eloquent summary and conclusion of the production of inequality. He writes “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”. (Marx, 1998, p.34).


  • Anderson, Perry. (1974). The Feudal Mode of Production. Canada: University of Athabasca

  • Hilton, Rodney. (1973). The Nature of Medieval Peasant Economy. Canada: University of Athabasca

  • Marx, Karl & Engels Frederick. (1998). The Communist Manifesto A Modern Edition. New York: Verso

  • Marxists Internet Archive. (1968). Engels to Franz Mehring. Gestamtausgabe: International Publishers. Retrieved August 11, 2009, from

  • Marxists Internet Archive. (2000). A Critique of the German Ideology. Progress Publishers. Retrieved August 11, 2009, from ideology/ch01b.htm

  • Sayer, Derek. (1993). The Sociology of Power and Inequality Study Guide. Canada: University of Athabasca

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