Q. Discuss the causes of decline of feudalism in Europe. [BPSC, 2012]
Q. Discuss the causes for the decline of feudalism. (European) [BPSC, 2001]
Feudalism was a hierarchical system of land use and patronage that dominated Europe between the 9th and 14th centuries. Under Feudalism, a monarch’s kingdom was divided and subdivided into agricultural estates called manors. The nobles who controlled these manors oversaw agricultural production and swore loyalty to the king. Despite the social inequality it produced, Feudalism helped stabilize European society. But in the 14th century, Feudalism waned. The underlying reasons for this included warfare, disease, political change etc.
Causes of decline of feudalism
Feudalism contained seed of destruction
Feudalism contained in itself the seeds of its destruction. As Henry Martin has observed, “Feudalism concealed in its bosom the weapons with which it would be itself one day smitten”. In course of time when the feudal lords began to assert themselves too much, the kings who headed the feudal hierarchy, thought of bringing them under control. In this task they received full support from the newly emerged middle classes and freemen who were not under the control of the lords.
The middle classes consisting of traders and businessmen provided the king with money with which they began to maintain independent armies. With the help of these armies they were able to bring the turbulent nobles under control. The discovery of gun-powder and weapons like cannons also greatly helped the kings to reduce the lords to subjection and reduced their dependence on them.
Growth of trade and commerce
The liberation of the serfs due to enormous growth in trade and commence also greatly contributed to. The decline of feudalism. With the growth of trade and commerce a number of new cities and towns grew which provided new opportunities for work. The serfs got an opportunity to free themselves of the feudal lords by taking up work in the new towns. It may be observed that according to the existing feudal laws, a serf could become a freeman if he stayed away from the manor for more than one year.
The Crusades or the Holy wars also greatly contributed to the decline of the feudal system in the following ways:
- As a result of these wars the Europeans learnt the use of gun-powder from the Muslims. The discovery of gunpowder greatly undermined the importance of the feudal castles. As a result it was no more possible for the feudal lords to take shelter in these castles and defy the authority of the king.
- During the Crusade a large number of feudal lords lost their lives which gave a series set back to the feudal system. Some of the feudal lords who returned alive from the Crusades were forced to sell charter of liberties to towns which they once controlled. As a result a larger number of serfs self attained freedom.
- Crusades opened up trade between Europe and cities of Constantinople and Alexandria. As a result, commerce and industry in Europe received a fillip and a number of important cities developed. The merchants and artisans residing in these cities wished to free themselves from the control of feudal lords. Therefore, they either purchased freedom or obtained it by force. They secured the right of self-government and freedom from feudal dues and taxes. After freeing themselves from the control of the nobles, the cities began to maintain their own armed militia and constructed high turreted walls to protect themselves.
The Hundred Years’ War
To succeed, feudalism required considerable manpower. Vassals and serfs worked the manor year in and year out, bound by law to a lifetime of labor. But when war broke out between England and France in 1337, both nations undertook an unprecedented military buildup. This marked the start of the Hundred Years’ War, a series of intermittent conflicts that lasted until 1543. In both countries, the army swelled its ranks with feudal laborers, undermining the manorial system while increasing the value of commoners by teaching them much-needed military skills.
The Black Death
Ten years after the Hundred Years’ War began, the bubonic plague broke out in Europe. Spreading northwards from Italy, the bacterial infection known as the Black Death claimed at least a third of Western Europe’s total population. With the young men of France and England off at war, agricultural output was already declining. Now there was a new challenge facing feudalism. Manor after manor suffered devastating losses. Conditions were so severe, in fact, that waves of laborers ran away to larger cities, an act that would have once been punishable by law.
Feudalism was a coercive system that granted few individual liberties. Ancient laws kept peasants tied to the land, making their labor compulsory. Yet over time, concepts of individual rights gradually gained footing, especially in England. The 12th century reforms of Henry II, for instance, expanded the legal rights of a person facing trial. In 1215, King John was forced to approve the Magna Carta, a document obligating the crown to uphold common law. Eighty years later, Edward I finally extended parliamentary membership to commoners. These developments gradually made the concept of agricultural servitude appear inexcusable.
By the 1350s, war and disease had reduced Europe’s population to the point that peasant labor had become quite valuable. Yet conditions for the serfs themselves remained largely unchanged. They were still heavily taxed on wages kept artificially low. Unable to survive in these circumstances, Europe’s peasantry revolted. Between the 1350s and the 1390s, uprisings took place in England, Flanders, France, Italy, Germany and Spain. After an English revolt in 1381, Richard II promised to abolish serfdom. Though he later failed to keep his word, serfdom nonetheless died out in the next century.
End of the Middle Ages
The end of serfdom meant the end of feudalism itself. Europe’s manors could no longer function without a labor supply. As feudalism faded, it was gradually replaced by the early capitalist structures of the Renaissance. Land owners now turned to privatized farming for profit. Laborers began demanding – and were given – better wages and additional liberties. Thus, the slow growth of urbanization began, and with it came the cosmopolitan worldview that was the hallmark of the Renaissance.