What is Feudalism? - Definition
Welcome to Quatr.us Study Guides!

What is Feudalism?

Bayeux harold
Harold swears an oath to William
(Bayeux Tapestry, about 1077 AD)

Feudalism is a way to govern a large state when the king is poor and not very powerful, and when there aren't good roads so it is hard to communicate with people who live far away at the other end of your kingdom.

The king divided his land into fiefs (FEEFS) and gave them to other rich men or women, who were called dukes or duchesses, or sometimes earls or countesses. In exchange, the duke or duchess had to swear fealty (FEEL-tee) to the king - they had to promise to come help the king whenever he asked them, and to do whatever the king told them to do. Each duke or duchess held a large amount of land, so they divided their fiefs into smaller fiefs, ruled by counts or countesses or barons or baronesses. In exchange, the counts had to swear fealty to their duke or duchess.

These counts still held pretty large amounts of land, so they would divide their fiefs into farms, and give the farms out to their own followers. In exchange, the farmers had to swear fealty to the counts. So the feudal system was like a pyramid with the king on top, then a few dukes, then a lot of counts, and then a lot of farmers at the bottom.

When the king wanted to get an army together, he sent messengers to his dukes telling them to come with a lot of men, and the dukes sent messages to the counts, and the counts sent messages to each village telling men to come serve in the army.

But often the lords would decide that they were as rich as the king, and didn't have to do what he said. When the king told them what to do, they would just ignore him. Sometimes the king was so weak he just had to let that happen. Other times, the king would fight a war to try to force the duke to do what he wanted.

Learn by doing: fight a tournament
More about medieval armies
More about medieval government

Bibliography and further reading about the Middle Ages:

More about medieval government
Crafts and Projects on the Middle Ages
More about the Middle Ages
Quatr.us home


LIMITED TIME OFFER FOR TEACHERS: Using this article with your class? Show us your class page where you're using this article, and we'll send you a free subscription so all your students can use Quatr.us Study Guides with no distractions! (Not a teacher? Paid subscriptions are also available for just $16/year!)
Please help other teachers and students find us: link to this page from your class page.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Cite this page
  • Author: K.E. Carr
  • Title:
  • Site Name: Quatr.us Study Guides
  • Publisher: Quatr.us
  • Date Published:
Proud of your class page, homework page, or resource page? Send it in and win a Quatr.us "Great Page!" award!
Sign up for more free articles and special offers in Quatr.us' weekly newsletter:
We will never share your e-mail address unless you allow us to do so. View our privacy policy. Easy unsubscribe links are provided in every email.
Comment on This Article

Does your class page honor diversity, celebrate feminism, and support people of color, LBGTQ people, and people with disabilities? Let us know, and we'll send you a Diversity Banner you can proudly display!
Looking for more?
Quatr.us is loading comments...
(Comments will appear after moderation, if they are kind and helpful. Feel free to ask questions, and we'll try to answer them.)
Cite this page
  • Carr, K.E. . Quatr.us Study Guides, . Web. 25 March, 2017
ADVERTISEMENT