15 Characteristics of Feudalism

Updated on November 11th, 2022

The feudal system prevailed throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, which lasted from the 4th to the 15th century;

If you want to know what Feudalism is, here are 10 definitions according to different historians such as Acques Le Goff, Witold Kula, Georges Duby, Marc Léopold Benjamin Bloch, Karl Heinrich Marx, among others.

The feudal system was based on social inequality

Among the main characteristics of the feudal system are the following:

Social Classes

The Nobility

Formed by the king, princes, dukes, among others, who were the direct owners of large tracts of land. This class was subdivided into "high nobility" and "low nobility".

This group includes counts, dukes, marquises and barons.

The Clergy

Formed by the Pope and all the clergy, who were in charge of religious affairs.


Formed by peasants and their families who became serfs once they were in the hands of a feudal lord.

Nobility Authority

Although it may seem contradictory, the kings had a limited authority; it did not go beyond their territories; and that was one of the causes of the frequent wars: the expansion of the territory was equal to the expansion of their authority.

On the other hand, they could not intervene within the feudal lord's lands either..

A tactic practiced by the nobility was to grant land free of charge to dukes, counts, feudal lords, etc., in order to obtain their loyalty and military aid when the nobility required it.

Decentralization of power

Each kingdom was autonomous and had its own legislations, its own ways of applying justice and its own taxes.

The same applied to each feudal lord, who assumed the same functions within their lands.

Concentration of power

Although the power of a nation was decentralized, within each kingdom, the social class formed by the nobility, the monarchical class and the feudal lords, had practically the political and economic control, and therefore, the social control of their lands. There was no possibility for a vassal to claim any rights.

Feudal Contract

It was a contract, usually unwritten, in which a man called "señor" (landowner) offered protection to a peasant in exchange for labor and loyalty.

Type of Economy

Almost everything revolved around agriculture and livestock.

Each feudal lord was considered an economic unit. When the harvest came, the peasant took a small part, just to survive himself and his family, the rest belonged to the feudal lord, who took a part to pay a kind of tribute to the nobility as payment for the transfer of the land. This payment was perpetual.

Although surplus production was used for bartering, this practice was uncommon, so trade was almost nonexistent.

At this point, many consider that it was only produced for subsistence.


In the absence of a monetary unit, barter was the way in which buying and selling transactions were carried out.

The Wars

Wars were a very common means of economic growth, because the winner took the land, serfs and everything else the loser owned.

Social Stratum Mobility

There was practically no possibility of moving up in social class, if you were born a peasant, you stayed a peasant, it was practically impossible to become a nobleman.


The relationship consisted of the lord, owner of the land, giving protection and maintenance to the vassal, who in turn worked the land and was obedient to him.

Taxes and Revenues

Tributes were common at this time; and the burden fell on the serfs, for since there was no money as we know it today, it was paid in kind, i.e.: the offspring of animals, milk, oil, grains, etc.

Castles or Fortresses

Thanks to these constructions, the nobility and the aristocratic class had greater protection, they and the serfs who worked for them.

The Catholic Church

The Pope and the clergy had a strong influence on the nobility and the people.

The Burgos

At this time the "burgos" arose, which began as small urban settlements, which over time increased in number of people; the task was to acquire agricultural products, milk, meat, etc. from the area and then sell them to the people who came to buy them.

These people did not belong to the social class of the nobility, nor to the feudal lords, nor were they peasants.

burgos urban settlement Image from Franck Barske from Pixabay


At this time it was customary for marriages to be arranged between families in order to strengthen or increase economic and political power; it was also done to "rise" in social status.

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