Feudal oppression

In her revisionist Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (7-8), Susan Reynolds traces common notions of feudal society, feudalism, feudal system back to sixteenth century legal historians, from where they made their way into Montesquieu and Adam Smith’s historical evolution of political economy: “In smith’s description of feudal government the framework of the sixteenth century discussions is still clearly visible.”

On the continent, these notions were put to political use: “To lawyers and intellectuals of the French Enlightenment [feudalism] survived in France and would do so until les droits feodaux et censuels were abolished in 1789. For the German, von Justi, common sense demanded the abolition of a system that shortage of cash had made necessary in a bygone age. The French Revolution brought the package view of feudalism as a past stage of history to a wider public and accentuated the tendency to attribute to the middle ages whatever seemed most irrational and oppressive about the Ancient Regime, like the classification of society into distinct orders with a defined and legally privileged nobility. Ideas of progress suggested that such deplorable arrangements must have been archaic survivals. The package view of the middle ages as feudal and of feudalism as oppressive then got a new lease of life when Marx took it over, along with a newer version of the four-stage theory. He put new driving forces behind the beginning and end of what was not called simply feudalism.”

As Reynolds’s rhetoric makes clear, she doesn’t believe that this “feudalism” has much to do with what actually took place in the middle ages. Her rapid summary, though, provides a good example of the potency of mythohistory.

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