"Feudal" and "feudalism" were originally legal jargon, taken over from the courts of the eighteenth century by Boulainvilliers, and then by Montesquieu, to become the rather awkward labels for a type of social structure which was itself rather ill-defined.
"Feudalism" is a controversial term, to which many different meanings have been given. It came into popular use only in the eighteenth century after the French Revolution in 1789 when many "feudal" practices were abolished in France. It had been conceived as a form of society possessing well-marked features found in Western Europe from the ninth century onwards.
Feudalism was the medieval model of government predating the birth of the modern nation-state. Feudal society is a military hierarchy in which a ruler or lord offers mounted fighters a fief (medieval beneficium), a unit of land to control in exchange for a military service. The individual who accepted this land became a vassal, and the man who granted the land become known as his liege or his lord.
"In the late medieval period, the fiefdom often became hereditary, and the son of a knight or lesser nobleman would inherit the land and the military duties from his father upon the father's death. Feudalism had two enormous effects on medieval society.
(1) First, feudalism discouraged unified government...
(2) Second, feudalism discouraged trade and economic growth..."
In theory, the entire medieval community would be divided into three groups: bellatores (the noblemen who fought), labores (the agricultural laborers who grew the food), and oratores (the clergy who prayed and attended to spiritual matters).
The 'feudal system,' as most British and American medievalists use the term, describes a complex network or web or personal loyalties and (sometimes) tenure that defined how the nobility of the High Middle Ages were connected to one another and gave shape to how they ruled over each other and the peasantry. BUT this is not the way that all historians have or do use this word.
In the feudal relationship, a vassal owed loyalty and service to a lord according to the terms of their personal agreement.
In the feudal way of things, lords and kings did not make law since they were guided by tradition and precedent. Patterns of landownership were regarded as expressions of ancient and unchanging custom. In general, when conflicts developed between vassal and lord, or between lords, the demand was almost always made for the restoration of customary rights.
Feudal lords were warriors plain and simple. Manual labor or trade was shunned as degrading to men of such high stature. There was only one vocation and that was fighting. Combat demonstrated a lord's honor and his reputation. It was also a measure of his wealth and influence in feudal society.
"But wht does a warrior do when there was no one to fight? By the 12th century the nobility began to stage tournaments in which knights engaged each other in battle in order to prove their skill, courage and honor. The victors in these 'celebrations' gained prestige and honor in the eyes of fellow nobles and peasants alike. A code of behavior, chivalry, evolved from these feudal contests of skill. A worthy knight was expected to exhibit the outward signs of this code of knightly behavior: bravery, loyalty, respect and courage."
Feudalism and Knights - The Feudalism Pyramid
The King owned all of the land
The King granted land to important barons - these barons then pledged their loyalty by swearing to serve and protect the king
The king also granted land to the less powerful military men (the knights) who were called vassals
The knights (or vassals) also agreed to fight for the king in exchange for their land
The land was worked by the peasants or serfs who were bound to the land
Feudalism and Knights - Climbing the Feudalism Pyramid
The Feudalism Pyramid of Power made it possible for everyone to move higher up the ranks and this is what everyone aspired to do. Medieval Squires and Pages of the Middle Ages wanted to become knights. A Knight who proved valiant in battle could become wealthy. The most wealthy and powerful knights then joined the nobility. Powerful barons aspired to be King - and the Medieval history of the Middle Ages under the feudalism pyramid describes such coups.
Lords reserved the right to secure a useful and loyal holder of a fief. If a vassal died and left a son of full age who was a good knight, the lord had no reason to object to his succession. If the son was a minor, however, or if the heir was female, the lord would want to control the fief until the heir was of age or the heiress married to a man the lord approved of; thus arose the lord's right of wardship for a minor or female heir and his further right of marriage, which might, in some fiefs, lead to his choosing the partner himself. The widow of a vassal had a lifetime right of dower in her husband's fief (commonly a third of the value), and this also led to the lord's interest in her remarriage; in some fiefs he had a full right to control such a remarriage. In the event a vassal died childless, the relationship of his heirs to the lord could vary: Brothers were usually acceptable but cousins might not be. If no heirs were acceptable to the lord, the fief was declared an escheat and returned to his full control; he could then keep it in his demesne or grant it to any knight he chose to make his vassal.
Breach of Contract Because the feudal relationship was contractual, false actions on either side could cause breach of contract. When the vassal failed to perform required services, the lord could bring charges against him in his court before the other vassals, and if they found their peer guilty, he would be declared to have forfeited his fief, which would return to the lord's demesne.