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Environmental Studies
English Language and Linguistics
Private: BA English
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Unit 4
Decline of Feudalism

Learning Outcomes

Upon the successful completion of the unit, the learner will be able to:

  • familiarize with feudalism and the major causes of its decline.
  • get acquainted with the social structure of medieval Europe.
  •  comprehend the economic and political impact of the decline of feudalism on European history.
  • explain the debates regarding the decline of feudalism.
  •  examine the Black death as a major event of the Middle Ages.


There were many causes for the breakdown of the feudal system. In England, several political changes in the 12th and 13th centuries helped to weaken feudalism. Feudal culture declined as new military technology reduced the importance of castles and feudal lords. The Black Death or the plague caused trade and commerce to slow, and the feudal model of agricultural production was undermined as peasants gained greater opportunities. The hierarchical structures of feudal society were challenged by war and disease as the common people gained influence throughout this period, events like the signing of the Magna Carta and the hundred years’ war hastened the process. In this unit, we will explore key events that contributed to the decline of feudalism and various debates by scholars on the same.

Feudal economy, Crusades, Serfdom, Merchant guild, Black Death, Peasant Revolt

The terms feudalism and feudal system generally applied to the early and central Middle Ages – the period from the 5th century to the 12th century. In the 5th century, central political authority in Western Europe collapsed due to the barbarian invasions, and in the 12th century, strong monarchs and Kingdoms began to emerge as effective centralised units of government. Feudalism was the dominant system in medieval Europe, in which the nobility held lands from the King in exchange for military service. The vassals were tenants of the nobles, while the peasants (Villeins or Serfs) were obliged to live depending on their lords and give them homage, labour and share of the products. The feudal economy was a natural economy, i.e., a “subsistence economy”. The peasants produced mainly for their own consumption and rarely exchanged commodities. Karl Marx used the term feudalism to describe a “whole social order whose principal feature was the domination of the rest of the society, mainly peasants, by a military landowning aristocracy”. The essence of the feudal mode of production in the Marxist sense is the exploitative relationship between landowners and subordinate peasants. According to Rodney Hilton, “the basic feature of feudal society was its agrarian character and petty production, based on the peasant family. The surplus produced by the peasantry was appropriated by a class of landlords who did not fulfil any economic function”.
2.4.1 Causes for the Decline of Feu- dalism
Scholars like Maurice Dobb (Studies in the Development of Capitalism), Henry Pirenne (Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe), Marc Bloch (Feudal Society), and Rodney Hilton (A Crisis in Feudalism) have given various reasons for the decline of feudalism in Western Europe. They attributed the breakdown of feudalism to commercial expansion, the revival of long-distance trade from the 12th century onwards, the decline of serfdom etc. Let’s examine some important general factors that contributed to the decline of feudalism in Western Europe, especially in England. In England, political developments during the 12th and 13th centuries helped to weaken feudalism. William the conqueror took many measures to curtail the power of feudal lords. He wanted to establish royal supremacy over feudal lords. By the famous “Oath of Salisbury,” he brought all feudal lords and barons in England under his control and strengthened the power and prestige of the royal authority. His measures clearly paved way for the weakening of feudal tendencies in England. The Legal Reforms of Henry II (1154-1189) also helped to undermine the power of feudal lords. Henry II made legal reform a central concern of his reign. His legal reforms strengthened the power of royal courts at the expense of feudal lords.
Another reason for the decline of feudalism was the Black Death caused by the bubonic plague, which affected all of Europe. The bubonic plague first struck Europe in 1346 and continued till 1351. It returned in waves that occurred about every decade till the 15th century. The plague took a terrible toll on the population of England. Historians estimate that around 24 million Europeans died of the plague – about a third of the population. The deaths of so many people accelerated changes in Europe’s economic and social structure, which contributed to the decline of feudalism. After the plague, there was a shift in power from nobles to the common people. One reason for this was the extremely intense demand for workers because so many people had died. The workers who survived the plague could demand more money and more rights. Many peasants and some serfs abandoned the feudal manors and moved to the towns and cities, seeking better opportunities. This led to the weakening of the manor system and a loss of power for feudal lords. After the plague, a number of peasant rebellions broke out. The most famous of these revolts was the English Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. All this helped to weaken the power of feudal lords in England.
The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) also helped in the decline of feudalism in England. The War contributed to the decline of feudalism by helping to shift power from feudal lords to monarchs and common people. During wartime, the monarchs of England collected taxes and raised large professional armies. As a result, Kings no longer relied as much on nobles to supply knights for the army. The most permanent impact of the war in England was the emergence of a greater sense of patriotism and national identity. This new sense of identity also shifted power away from feudal lords. After the war, many English peasants and common people felt more loyal to their monarchs than to their feudal lords.
The Crusades also greatly contributed to the decline of the feudal system. During the Crusades, a large number of feudal lords lost their lives which gave a setback to the feudal system. Some of the feudal lords who returned back from the Crusades were forced to sell charters of liberties to towns which they once controlled. As a result, a large number of serfs attained freedom.
The growth in commercial expansion and the revival of long-distance trade from the 12th century onwards also caused the decline of feudalism. The commercial expansion created a market for luxury goods among the elite class. This commercial expansion also introduced a money economy. With the growth of trade and commerce a number of new cities and towns emerged in Europe which provided new job opportunities. Thus the serfs could smash the shackles of feudal bondage. The revival of long-distance trade broke down the self-sufficient manorial economy of feudal Europe.
2.4.2 Emergence of Trade and Urban Centres
James Masschaele in his magnum opus Peasants, Merchants, and Markets: Inland Trade in Medieval England, 1150-1350 aptly remarks about the development of trade and commerce in medieval England thus: “By the end of the thirteenth century England had developed a sophisticated commercial economy that embraced all levels of society.” This statement shows the importance gave the rulers, merchants and commons of England for the development of trading activities in the country, that resulted in England becoming a tycoan in the international markets. The medieval English economy was completely dominated by markets and market activities. One of the most important peculiarities of the medieval English town was that it was owned by kings and feudal lords. Thus, the towns were part of either the lord’s manor or the king’s domain. So a feudal relationship existed in the town just like in the countryside. Towns like London, Winchester, Gloucester, Sandwich, Derby and Whitby became the centres of inland and overseas trading activities. The occupants of medieval towns engaged in a wide variety of specialised commodity production. Important commodity productions were leather making, textiles, clothing, vending and metalworking. Some peasants produced a substantial surplus of grain and animal products which were sold in the town markets. Many peasants thus also became part and parcel of the town market. The great cash crop of Medieval England was wool and it was produced on peasant holdings. The owners of the markets defended their rights strongly and tried to limit competition. Markets generated significant incomes for their owners through market tolls. Toll rates were generally seldom more than one per cent of the value of the goods traded. But some groups of people and some commodities were exempted from the toll. The goods brought for household consumption were exempted from paying toll. Similarly, small goods such as apples, or butter in earthen pots, produced by peasant households were also exempted from toll.
During the early 13th century, English kings had granted exemption of tolls in all the markets to most Church Corporations. This exemption was also applicable to their manorial tenants. Refusing to pay a toll without necessary reasons was considered a great offence. One such example was, in 1315 the town of Sandwich seized the almonds, figs and raisins of a merchant from London who refused to pay a toll to the market authorities. It is evident that an effective system of administration existed in medieval England to monitor and regulate trading activities.
Wool became the backbone and driving force of the medieval English economy between the late thirteenth century and late fifteenth century. At that time the wool trade was described as “the jewel in the realm”. A major source of English wealth in the Middle Ages was the profit acquired from the lucrative wool trade with the Continent. Wool was the most important industrial raw material and it was the first industrial occupation to transform whole parts of Europe into specialised manufacturing regions, as in Florence, Champagne, and Southern France. England was the most important source of raw wool and some of this wool was exported to Italy, while most of it was worked into cloth in Northern Europe, in the Low Countries [Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands] and later in England itself.
The English predominance in the wool trade was a result of political and fiscal measures brought about by the successive acts of royal policy and by a bargain between the king and the merchants. Meenaxi Phukan, in her book Rise of the Modern West: Social and Economic History of Early Modern Europe has stated this fact. T.H. Lloyd has written a well-versed work titled The English Wool Trade in the Middle Ages to analyse how the economy of medieval England achieved a great boom due to the wool trade. He says “By the end of the twelfth-century English wool was essential to the Low Countries and by threatening to cut off supplies the King of England could influence the allegiances of those provinces.” This observation not only shows the importance of English wool in the Continent but the use of wool trade as a diplomatic lever.
The notions of the fellowship have the largest impact on the creation of the guilds. According to Joseph Strayer’s Dictionary of the Middle Ages, guilds were considered “an association of merchants or artisans primarily intended to promote the interest of its members…the guild usually enjoyed legal recognition and social permanence”. There is no official written evidence of guilds existing in England prior to the ninth century. But the word Gildan, or gild brethren, had been widely used in Anglo-Saxon laws, especially during the time of King Alfred. This made the historians hypothesis that a “fraternal association”, resembling later guilds had prevailed in the Anglo-Saxon period itself. London, as well as other towns and cities of the twelfth century, acted as the epicentre for guilds. The guilds created a regulated authority over members, monopolies, and outside merchants. One of the three most influential guilds of twelfth-century England (the other two guilds were the Craft Guild and Religious Guild) was the Merchant Guild. A merchant Guild was an association of traders. These Merchant Guilds had monopoly overtrade in their town and also enjoyed economic and political influence.
Merchant Guilds began to flourish after the Norman invasion of 1066. The unique feature of the Merchants Guild was their involvement in long-distance commerce and local wholesale trade. “The members of the guild were guaranteed rights and protection from outside traders and even rulers of other countries who would try to seize goods. With the capability to enforce codes of conduct on both rulers and members, guild merchants had an incredible ability to monopolise every aspect of trade within a town”, says Katherine Payne in her book Origin and Creation: London Guilds of the Twelfth Century. Merchant Guilds were able to negotiate with the lords concerning the trade leveled and regulations imposed on individual traders or craftsmen to regulate the price and supply of goods. In short, Merchant Guilds played a very crucial role in the development of Medieval England’s internal and external trade.
2.4.3 Black Death
The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. The death toll reached its peak in Europe between 1348 and 1350. It caused an outbreak of plague by the bacterium Yersinia Pestis. It began in Asia and spread throughout the Mediterranean and Europe through trading ships. The term “Black Death” probably came from the black- and-blue swellings that appeared on the skin of the victims. The unhygienic conditions in which people lived contributed significantly to the spread of the bubonic plague. The importance of hygiene was only recognised in the 19th century. Until then it was common for that the streets to be filthy, live with animals of all sorts around and human fleas and ticks abounding. Any transmissible disease will spread easily in such conditions. One benefit of the Black Death was the establishment of the idea of quarantine in Dubrovnik (a city in modern Croatia) in 1377 after continuing outbreaks.
The Black Death is estimated to have killed 30% to 60% of Europe’s population. It reduced the world population from an estimated 450 million to 350 and 375 million in 1400. The Black Death created a series of religious, social and economic upheavals, which had profound effects on the course of European history. It took 150 years for Europe’s population to recover. The plague returned at various times, killing more people until it left Europe in the 19th century. Effects of the Black Death
Black Death had a profound impact on the lives of English people. It deeply affected the social, economic and religious spheres. Among the most important immediate consequences of the Black Death in England was a shortage of farm labour. The shortage of labour caused a corresponding rise in wages. Many arable lands in England lay uncultivated due to the lack of peasants caused by the Black Death. The prices of agricultural products also increased. But the landlords were not ready to agree to the increase in wage level. The landlord’s viewed the rise in wages as a sign of social upheaval and insubordination and they reacted with severe suppressive measures.
It was in this backdrop that the parliament passed legislation called the Statute of Labourers in 1351 under the auspices of King Edward III. The legislation reads: – “Everyone under the age of 60, except traders, craftsmen, and those with private means, had to work for wages which were set at their various pre-plague levels”. The legislation also made an offence for landless men to seek new masters or to be offered higher wages. So, the legislation prohibited requesting or offering a wage higher than pre-plague standards and limited movements of workers in search of better conditions. Workers who violated the Statute of Labourers were fined and were put in ‘stocks’ (Stocks were used in medieval times as a form of punishment involving public humiliation. The stocks were often located in a public space, so that people who passed the victim would know he broke some law.) as punishment for disobeying the statute. In 1360, punishments became worse. Workers who demanded higher wages were sent to prison. The Statute was strictly enforced for several years and caused a great deal of discontent among the peasant labourers. This was the background of a strong and violent “Peasants’ Revolt” in 1381. Thus, Black Death contributed indirectly to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Black Death weakened the feudal structure and the power of feudal lords in England.
Another immediate consequence of the Black Death was the temporary halt to the campaigns of the Hundred Years’ War. The pandemic diverted the attention of monarchs from war efforts to secure lives. The inception of sheep farming in England was another impact of the Black Death. After the Black Death, much of England’s arable lands were converted to pasture, mainly for sheep. Many workers were needed to grow and harvest grain, so some lords began to raise sheep instead. Raising sheep required fewer workers and there were more customers for the meat and for woollen clothing. This helped to boost the cloth and woollen industry. Production of these goods increased and the export of wool made England rich. Some serfs and peasants also reared sheep and obtained profit from the sale of wool. Peasants eventually became free to move away from estates owned by lords. Some peasants were even able to buy their own land.

  •  Causes for the decline of feudalism: political developments during the 12th and 13th centuries in England- the Legal Reforms of Henry II (1154-1189) – the Black Death – the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) – the crusades – growth in commercial expansion and the revival of long-distance trade
  • Debate on the nature of decline of feudalism – theories of Maurice Dobb, Henry Pirenne, Marc Bloch and Rodney Hilton
  • Impact of the emergence of trade and urban centres – Merchant Guilds- de- velopment of Medieval England’s internal and external trade.
  • The bubonic plague first struck Europe from 1346 to 1351, it returned in waves that occurred about every decade into the 15th century.
  • Historians estimate that 24 million Europeans died of the plague – about a third of the population.
  • Black death and its effects on European history: the most devastating pan- demic in human history. The death toll reached its peak in Europe between 1348 and 1350.

Objective Type Questions

1. Who wrote the work, Studies in the Development of Capitalism?
2. When did the bubonic plague first struck Europe?
3. When did English Peasants’ Revolt happen?
4. Who wrote the book “The English Wool Trade in the Middle Ages”?
5. Which bacteria caused the outbreak of the Black Death Plague?
6. Who was the king when the Parliament passed the legislation of the Statute of Labourers?
7. How many people were killed due to the plague in Europe?
8. Who authored A Crisis in Feudalism?

Answers to Objective Type Questions

1. Maurice Dobb
2. 1346-1351
3. 1381
4. T.H. Lloyd
5. Yersinia Pestis
6. Edward III
7. 24 million
8. Rodney Hilton


1. Examine the major reasons behind the decline of feudalism in Europe.
2. Discuss the consequences of the Black Death Plague in 14th-century Europe.
3. Explain the socio-political background of the Peasant Revolt of 1381.
4. Discuss the role of merchant guilds in the growth of urban centres.

Suggested Readings

1. Brown, Reginald Allen. Origins of English Feudalism, Allen and Unwin, 1973.
2. Carter, E.H. Mears,, A History of Britain, Stacey International, 2012.
3. Amt, Emilie. (Ed.), Medieval England, 1000-1500: A Reader, University of To- ronto Press, 2000.
4. Brown, Eric. English History, A Concise Overview of the History of England from Start to End, Guy Saloniki, 2019.
5. Maitland, F.W. Domesday Book and Beyond: Three Essays in the Early History of England, Sagwan Press, 2018.
6. Trevelyan, George Macaulay. Illustrated English Social History, Pelican, 1964. 7. Warren, Hollister C. The Impact of the Norman Conquest, Wiley, 1969.
8. Round, J.H. Feudal England, Outlook Verlag, 2018.
9. Morgan, Kenneth O (Ed). The Oxford History of Britain, OUP Oxford, 2010.