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Black Plague and Feudalism

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Darius of Parsa View Drop Down
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    Posted: 09 Aug 2012 at 08:12
There seems to be a well noted relationship between the Black Plague and the fall of Feudalism's

dominance in Medieval Europe. However, how much of an impact did the plague really have on the fall

of feudalism thereafter. I tend to believe there were other much more important reasons why

Feudalism went out of fashion. Thoughts?
"I am moved to pity, when I think of the brevity of human life, seeing that of all this host of men not one will still be alive in a hundred years time."

Emporer Xerxes I looking upon his army 480 BC
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David Greenwich View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote David Greenwich Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09 Aug 2012 at 10:33
Originally posted by Darius of Parsa Darius of Parsa wrote:

There seems to be a well noted relationship between the Black Plague and the fall of Feudalism's

dominance in Medieval Europe. However, how much of an impact did the plague really have on the fall

of feudalism thereafter. I tend to believe there were other much more important reasons why

Feudalism went out of fashion. Thoughts?
 
I think that there is plenty of evidence that the Black Death dealt a serious blow to feudalism. Essentially, peasants found they could sell their labour because there was a shortage of labour and that loosened the bonds of feudalism.
 
However, with all power systems the really dangerous thing is when people stop believing in them.
When feudalism first developed it grew out of tribalism in W. Europe at least.  There was a real connection between leaders and tribe.  But by the 1300s the lords had become divorced from the people - in many countries like England the feudal masters were people of a different ethnicity.  There had been plenty of instances of injustice that had been incorporated into the folk memory in any case to loosen the ties of feudalism.  Society was far more complex than 500 years previously .
Papacy and personal devotion were rival centres of loyalty.
 
However let's not forget the feudal idea is v. strong. My friend told me about the time he was out walking with his grandfather in England as recently as the 1960s  and they happened upon the lord of the manor - and his grandfather told him he ought to touch his forelock to the master.
 
So feudalism had lasted at least 1100 years!
 
 
 
What is past is not necessarily settled.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Guests Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09 Aug 2012 at 15:04
It would of course be folly to identify the Black Death as the sole cause of feudal decline. But historians do conventionally acknowledge that this phenomenon had a definite and major impact. My inclination is to agree that it had the single largest impact on the decline of feudalism of any factor. In the early days of feudalism, things had not always been a situation of virtual slavery for the peasantry. Marshes were being drained, forests felled and lands conquered from heathens at a rapid pace. With lower population density and lots of work to be done, feudal lords would even offer competitive terms of vassalage which the peasants could choose between, as occurred in Sicily after the Norman conquest. But whenever there is an abundance of something in relation to need, it becomes valued less. And this includes human beings. By the 14 century, sheer population density removed much need for the feudal lords to offer such competitive rates in the terms of vassalage. Economies of scale developed, ensuring more could be done with fewer workers. The Black Death reversed these bargaining disadvantages for low level vassals, despite measures like royal edicts which attempted (unsuccessfully) to fix remuneration at set rates.
 
Other factors I would cite for the decline in the feudal system include the growth of cities and the growth of the centralised powers of the various nation states. France is an excellent example of this. The growth of cities resulted in the development of communes, which were a power unto themselves. As a major source of population, industry and income, these holdings were outside the control of feudal barons.
 
Meanwhile the increasing size of the demesne of the Capetian and Valois Kings typically occurred at the expense of some of their vassals. While in England the King lost more power vis-a-vis his nobles, the nobels themselves had to in turn surrender certain of their autonomy to the increasingly powerful Parliament.
 
Essentially the success of the feudal system enabled the growth of alternative social structures (centralised government, urban communes) which the masses could turn to as an alternative. And with the threat of Dark Age warbands and raiders largely gone, the feudal system lost one of its most attractive features (providing local, short notice protection).
 
But I still rank the Black Death as the more important factor. Remember, the Byzantines also had a strong centralised government, but feudalism increased strongly anyway throughout the period prior to the 14th century. Ultimately, the inability of the feudal structure to continue to coerce economic cooperation is what made it increasingly weak and irrelevant.
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