Discuss the factors responsible for the decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism in Europe. उन तत्वों की विवेचना कीजिए जो यूरोप में सामन्तवाद के पतन एवम् पूंजीवाद के उत्थान के लिए उत्तरदायी हैं। [BPSC, 1993]

Q. Discuss the factors responsible for the decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism in Europe. उन तत्वों की विवेचना कीजिए जो यूरोप में सामन्तवाद के पतन एवम् पूंजीवाद के उत्थान के लिए उत्तरदायी हैं। [BPSC, 1993] ©


Feudalism was a hierarchical system of land use and patronage that dominated Europe between the 9th and 14th centuries. Specifically, it means a social system of rights and duties based on land tenures and personal relationships, in which land is held in ‘fief’ by vassals from lord. 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. However it continued to lingered upto the 16th century


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.
  • Rise in trade led to increased use of money and inflation began to undermine the feudal order.


The Crusades or the Holy wars also greatly contributed to the decline of the feudal system in the following ways:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
    1. Earlier the main trade routes across the Mediterranean were occupied by the Muslims. With the restoration of these strategic points by Crusades from the 11th century onwards, trade revived, and feudalism declined.
    2. increased foreign trade was a major cause behind decline of feudalism.

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 Great Famine of (1315–1317)

  • It struck Europe early in the 14th century. Most of Europe (extending east to Russia and south to Italy) was affected. The famine caused millions of deaths over an extended number of years and marked a clear end to the period of growth and prosperity from the 11th to the 13th centuries.  The Great Famine started with bad weather in spring 1315. Crop failures lasted through 1316 until the summer harvest in 1317, and Europe did not fully recover until 1322. The period was marked by extreme levels of crime, disease, mass death, and even cannibalism and infanticide.

The Black Death (1348–1350)

  • 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.

The demographic crisis

  • The demographic crisis of the 14th century upset the manorial arrangement.This crisis had several causes: agricultural productivity reached its technological limitations and stopped growing, the Great Famine, and the Black Death of led to a population crash.
  • These factors led to a decline in agricultural production. In response, feudal lords sought to expand agricultural production by extending their domains through warfare; therefore they demanded more tribute from their serfs to pay for military expenses. In England, many serfs rebelled. Some moved to towns, some bought land, and some entered into favorable contracts to rent lands from lords who needed to repopulate their estates.

Political Changes

  • 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.

Social Unrest

  • 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.

Thus, above factors (demographic changes, Inner-contradictions in the feudalism, the expansion of market and the growth of cities etc) caused the decline of feudalism and ultimately led to rise of capitalism.

Capitalism is the economic and social system (and also the mode of production) in which the means of production are predominantly privately owned and operated for profit, and distribution and exchange is in a mainly market economy.

Whether ‘true’ capitalism began with the coming of the industrial revolution in England in the 2nd half of the 18th century or with the maturity of merchant capitalism during the 16th century, are some issues that have been raised in the course of the transition debate.

  • One of the liveliest academic debates in recent times relate tot he question of what led to the decline of feudalism and the emergence of capitalist mode of production that led to the creation of the modern world. This is commonly called the‘transition debate’.

The history of capitalism is diverse and has many debated roots, but fully fledged capitalism is generally thought by scholars to have emerged in Northwestern Europe, especially in Great Britain and the Netherlands, in the 16th to 17th centuries. The traders in Amsterdam and London created the first chartered joint-stock companies driving up commerce and trade, and the first stock exchanges and banking and insurance institutions were established.

Factors behind the rise of capitalism:

  • Agrarian capitalism:
    • The collapse of the manorial system:
      • It enlarged the class of tenant farmers with more freedom to market their goods and thus more incentive to invest in new technologies. Lords who did not want to rely on renters could buy out or evict tenant farmers, but then had to hire free labor to work their estates, giving them an incentive to invest in two kinds of commodity owners.
        • One kind was those who had money, the means of production.
        • The other kind was free workers, who sold their own labor.
      • The workers neither formed part of the means of production nor owned the means of production that transformed land and even money into what we now call “capital”.
      • Marx labeled this period the “pre-history of capitalism”.
      • Thus, feudalism began to lay some of the foundations necessary for the development of mercantilism, a precursor of capitalism.
    • The relatively sudden emergence of new technologies and discoveries, particularly in agriculture and exploration, facilitated the growth of capitalism. The most important development at the end of feudalism was the emergence of what Robert Degan calls “the dichotomy between wage earners and capitalist merchants“.
      • The competitive nature meant there are always winners and losers, and this became clear as feudalism evolved into mercantilism, an economic system characterized by the private or corporate ownership of capital goods, investments determined by private decisions, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods determined mainly by competition in a free market.
    • England in the 16th century was already a centralized state, in which much of the feudal order of Medieval Europe had been swept away. This centralization was strengthened by a good system of roads and a disproportionately large capital city, London. The capital acted as a central market for the entire country, creating a large internal market for goods, in contrast to the fragmented feudal holdings that prevailed in most parts of the Continent.
      • the manorial system had broken down by this time, and the land began to be concentrated in the hands of fewer landlords with increasingly large estates. The system put pressure on both the landlords and the tenants to increase agricultural productivity to create profit. The system put pressure on both the landlords and the tenants to increase agricultural productivity to create profit.
      • The weakened coercive power of the aristocracy to extract peasant surpluses encouraged them to try out better methods. The tenants also had an incentive to improve their methods to succeed in an increasingly competitive labour market.
      • Land rents had moved away from the previous stagnant system of custom and feudal obligation, and were becoming directly subject to economic market forces.
    • Enclosure:
      • An important aspect of this process of change was the enclosure of the common land previously held in the open field system where peasants had traditional rights, such as mowing meadows for hay and grazing livestock.
      • Once enclosed, these uses of the land became restricted to the owner, and it ceased to be land for commons. The process of enclosure began to be a widespread feature of the English agricultural landscape during the 16th century.
      • Marxist and neo-Marxist historians argue that rich landowners used their control of state processes to appropriate public land for their private benefit. This created a landless working class that provided the labour required in the new industries developing in the north of England.
        • As per Marxist historian the enclosure was a plain enough case of class robbery.
      • The process of enclosure led to myriad peasant revolts, among them Kett’s Rebellion and the Midland Revolt, which culminated in violent repression and executions.
      • However, other scholars argue that the better-off members of the European peasantry encouraged and participated actively in enclosure, seeking to end the perpetual poverty of subsistence farming. As per them, the impact of eighteenth and nineteenth century enclosure has been grossly exaggerated.
  • Merchant capitalism:
    • Modern capitalism only fully emerged in the early modern period between the 16th and 18th centuries, with the establishment of mercantilism or merchant capitalism.
    • Under mercantilism, European merchants, backed by state controls, subsidies, and monopolies, made most of their profits from buying and selling goods.
      • Increased foreign trade led to the emergence of a new class of merchant capitalist.
    • The mercantilism focused on the opening and well-balancing of trade; the cherishing of manufacturers; the banishing of idleness.
    • Among the major tenets of mercantilist theory was bullionism, a doctrine stressing the importance of accumulating precious metals.
      • Mercantilists argued that a state should export more goods than it imported so that foreigners would have to pay the difference in precious metals.
    • Mercantilists asserted that only raw materials that could not be extracted at home should be imported. They promoted the idea that government subsidies, such as granting monopolies and protective tariffs, were necessary to encourage home production of manufactured goods.
    • Proponents of mercantilism emphasized state power and overseas conquest as the principal aim of economic policy. If a state could not supply its own raw materials, according to the mercantilists, it should acquire colonies from which they could be extracted. Colonies constituted not only sources of raw materials but also markets for finished products.
    • Mercantilism was a system of trade for profit, although commodities were still largely produced by non-capitalist production methods.
    • Noting the various pre-capitalist features of mercantilism, Karl Polanyi argued that “mercantilism, with all its tendency toward commercialization, never attacked the safeguards which protected the two basic elements of production – labor and land – from becoming the elements of commerce.”
      • Thus mercantilist regulation was more akin to feudalism than capitalism.
  • Industrial capitalism:
    • Mercantilism declined in Great Britain in the mid-18th century, when a new group of economic theorists, led by Adam Smith, challenged fundamental mercantilist doctrines, such as that the world’s wealth remained constant and that a state could only increase its wealth at the expense of another state.
      • However, mercantilism continued in less developed economies, such as Prussia and Russia, with their much younger manufacturing bases.
    • The mid-18th century gave rise to industrial capitalism, made possible by:
      • The accumulation of vast amounts of capital under the merchant phase of capitalism and its investment in machinery, and
      • The fact that the enclosures meant that Britain had a large population of people with no access to subsistence agriculture, who needed to buy basic commodities via the market, ensuring a mass consumer market.
    • Industrial capitalism, which Marx dated from the last third of the 18th century, marked the development of the factory system of manufacturing, characterized by a complex division of labor between and within work processes and the routinization of work tasks. Industrial capitalism finally established the global domination of the capitalist mode of production.
    • During the resulting Industrial Revolution, the industrialist replaced the merchant as a dominant actor in the capitalist system, which led to the decline of the traditional handicraft skills of artisans, guilds, and journeymen.
    • Also during this period, capitalism transformed relations between the British landowning gentry and peasants, giving rise to the production of cash crops for the market rather than for subsistence on a feudal manor.
    • Industrial Revolution:
      • Starting in about 1760 in England, there was a steady transition to new manufacturing processes in a variety of industries, including going from hand production methods to machine production, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, improved efficiency of water power, the increasing use of steam power and the development of machine tools. It also included the change from wood and other bio-fuels to coal.
      • In textile manufacturing, mechanized cotton spinning powered by steam or water increased the output of a worker by a factor of about 1000, due to the application of spinning jenny, water frame, Spinning Mule and other inventions. The power loom increased the output of a worker by a factor of over 40.
    • Finance:
      • The growth of Britain’s industry stimulated a concomitant growth in its system of finance and credit.
      • In the 18th century, services offered by banks increased. Clearing facilities, security investments, cheques and overdraft protections were introduced. Cheques had been invented in the 17th century in England, and banks settled payments by direct courier to the issuing bank.
      • Older innovations became routine parts of financial life during the 19th century. The Bank of England first issued bank notes during the 17th century.
      • In 1844, parliament passed the Bank Charter Act tying these notes to gold reserves, effectively creating the institution of central banking and monetary policy. The notes became fully printed and widely available from 1855.
    • Free trade and globalization:
      • In 1817, David Ricardo, James Mill and Robert Torrens, in the famous theory of comparative advantage, showed that free trade would benefit the industrially weak as well as the strong.
        • In Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, Ricardo advanced the doctrine still considered the most counterintuitive in economics: When an inefficient producer sends the merchandise it produces best to a country able to produce it more efficiently, both countries benefit.
      • By the mid 19th century, Britain was firmly wedded to the notion of free trade, and the first era of globalization began. In the 1840s, the Corn Laws and the Navigation Acts were repealed, ushering in a new age of free trade.
      • In line with the teachings of the classical political economists, led by Adam Smith and David Ricardo, Britain embraced liberalism, encouraging competition and the development of a market economy.
    • Industrialization allowed cheap production of household items using economies of scale,  while rapid population growth created sustained demand for commodities.

Later in 20th century, several major challenges to capitalism appeared.  The Russian revolution in 1917 established the first socialist state in the world; a decade later, the Great Depression triggered increasing criticism of the existing capitalist system. One response to this crisis was a turn to fascism, an ideology that advocated state capitalism. Another response was to reject capitalism altogether in favor of communist or socialist ideologies.

The economic recovery of the world’s leading capitalist economies in the period following the end of the Great Depression and the Second World War—a period of unusually rapid growth by historical standards—eased discussion of capitalism’s eventual decline or demise.

Keynesian economics became a widely accepted method of government regulation and countries such as the United Kingdom experimented with mixed economies in which the state owned and operated certain major industries. ©

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