The End of Feudalism

Based on Douglass North and Robert Thomas, The Rise of the Western World (Cambridge, 1973).

European feudalism developed to train, equip, and support the knights who were the dominant instrument of war. Its institutions were well-suited to the conditions of the early middle ages: settlements that were small and scattered, but that provided some respite from the lawlessness that prevailed in the wilds between them; markets that were limited, local, and dominated by barter (here). Feudal institutions were governed by custom, making them resistant to change. They fell away only when major changes to the social environment made them thoroughly obsolete. These changes were a long time coming. Some of them followed the slow rhythms of the Middle Ages, while others were swift and dramatic.

Europe Fills Up

Northern Europe in 800 AD was sparsely populated, with an economy based on scattered manors that were nearly self-sufficient, but its population was slowly growing. New manors were established in wilderness areas, and the older manors gradually absorbed the untamed lands that surrounded them. As the manors became more populous and less isolated, more goods were brought in and carried away by professional traders.

Differences in population density explain much of the additional trade. The frontier areas tended to exploit the forests: they produced timber, pitch, tar, and furs. The newly settled areas produced grain and other farm products. The older areas, where the population density was highest, tended to produce labour-intensive goods (such as woolen and linen cloth) rather than land-intensive goods. Each area sold its own goods in order to purchase the goods of the other areas.

This trade network spread through northern Europe and eventually linked with the Mediterranean trade network. The latter network involved trade between Italian city states (especially Genoa, Venice, and Pisa) and the Arab world. The Italian traders exchanged timber, iron, and wood and metal manufactured products for the luxury goods that the Arab traders had purchased in the lands abutting the Indian Ocean: spices, perfumes, ivory, silk. Northern Europe’s demand for these goods rose as it became wealthier and more populous.

The settlement of frontier lands led to strengthening commerce, the growth of cities (which tended to develop along trade routes), and increasingly specialized production. These trends continued through to the end of the 12th century, by which time little unsettled land remained.

Feudalism had been designed for a society in which only local markets existed and in which money transactions were relatively rare. The rise of commerce deepened the markets and made money trades increasingly common, but feudalism was slow to respond to these changes. The customary law that governed the manors was the serfs’ protection from overbearing lords. Any deviation from the law reduced the law’s authority, so the serfs tended to weigh the immediate benefit of a deviation against the longer term cost of the erosion of the law. They often resisted change because they believed that the cost outweighed the benefit.

The most significant change was the substitution of a fixed money payment for the serf’s labour obligation, leaving him free to work full-time on his own strips. Lords also began to lease out some of their lands for fixed money payments. These payments were incorporated into customary law, and did not fluctuate. In the Middle Ages,

prices and wages expressed a moral judgment of worth. Supply and demand were morally irrelevant. The modern concept of prices and wages as pragmatic devices for clearing markets and allocating resources, implying no moral judgment, came much later.1

A money payment increasingly replaced a lord’s obligations to the king, as well as a lesser lord’s obligations to his overlord. Markets were now sufficiently deep that the king had no need to disperse his forces. He could instead have a standing army, which he would augment with mercenaries if the need arose. Although this innovation extinguished one of the manor’s major purposes, the manor itself continued for centuries.

The Decline of the Knight

The high cost of training, equipping and supporting a knight had been a key driver of the manor system. These costs were willingly incurred when the knight was the dominant weapon of war, but his dominance came to an end in the fourteenth century.

French knights were defeated by Flemish infantrymen in the Battle of Courtrai (1302). The knights were noblemen; the infantrymen were townsmen who had been trained as militia units. The Flemish pike formations formed lines that the knights attacked but could not break. The Flemish forces then pushed the knights backward over rough ground. This retreat left the knights in some disorder, and many were isolated and killed by their foes.

Battle of Courtrai, 1302
Battle of Courtrai, 1302

Battles at Crecy (1346) and Agincourt (1415) pitted French knights against English longbowmen. The knights lost disastrously in both cases. The longbowmen were commoners who were brought into service only for the duration of a military campaign, whereas the knights had no other occupation and had to be continually supported. Longbowmen, like knights, required years of practice to develop their strength and skills, but their training was only an adjunct to their lives as farmers or tradesmen.

Battle of Agincourt, 1415
Battle of Agincourt, 1415

The Italians favoured the crossbow. Its construction was much more mechanical than that of a longbow, and crossbowmen could be quickly trained. Both the crossbow and the longbow could pierce armour. Plate armour evolved to minimize these threats, but the greater weight of the armour was a danger in itself. Many of the knights who died at Agincourt were knocked from their horses and lay helpless in the muddy fields until they were casually dispatched by foot soldiers.

The final blow for knighthood was the development of gunpowder weapons. Gunpowder was invented by the Chinese, who were the first to use it as a weapon. The West learned about gunpowder in the middle of the thirteenth century (several hundred years after its invention), but there was parity between European and Chinese weapons by the early fourteenth century.2 European gunpowder weapons evolved rapidly over the next century, with innovations in the projectile, in the cannon, and in gunpowder itself. By the middle of the fifteenth century, gunpowder weapons could determine the outcome of a battle. In 1453, for example, the forces of Joan of Arc defeated an English army from entrenched artillery positions.

The Black Death and Its Consequences

The population of Western Europe in 1300 was 73 million. The frontier era was over, as almost all of the arable land had been exploited. The large population meant that there was ample labour to work the land, leaving the landlords prosperous and the peasants poor. There is little reason to doubt the Malthusian prediction that further population growth would have immiserated the vast majority of the people. That population growth did not come. The population fell to 51 million by 1350, and did not fully recover until 1550.

There were several reasons for this decline. Europe’s food production in good years was sufficient to feed its population, but any crop failure led to famine. Crop failures occurred repeatedly during this time. In France alone there was widespread famine during the years 1304, 1305, 1310, 1315, 1322, 1325, 1330—4, 1344, 1349—51, 1358—61, 1371, 1374—5 and 1390.3 Wars were also frequent, as incipient nation-states battled over borders. The biggest killer, though, was the Black Death.

The Black Death is the name given to the bubonic and pneumonic plagues that ravaged Eurasia during the fourteenth centuries. There is some uncertainty about the origins of the bacillus that caused these plagues, but it had established itself in the rodent population of the Asian steppes by the fourteenth century. It was carried both east and west by traders and by the Mongol armies. The plague reached China in the early part of the fourteenth century, killing something between a third and a half of its population. Central Asia and the Middle East were equally hard hit in the middle of the century: the death toll appears to have exceeded half of the population in some places.

The progress of the plague through Europe is particularly well documented. The Crimean port of Kaffa stood at the western end of the Silk Road, and was occupied by Genoan traders in the fourteenth century. The Golden Horde, attempting to drive out the Genoese, laid siege to the city in 1344. Its soldiers were devastated by the plague in 1347, and the plague reached the besieged city shortly
thereafter.4 Italians fleeing Kaffa carried the disease to Constantinople, and then to Pisa, Venice and Genoa as they returned to their homes. The plague then jumped from port to port in the Mediterranean, and moved overland at a slower pace.

The death rate varied greatly from country to country and town to town, so it is difficult to estimate the overall European death rate. A conservative estimate is that one-third of Europe’s population had been killed by 1350. Some recent estimates exceed one-half.5

Some of the less productive agricultural land was abandoned when the labour force collapsed. Total agricultural output fell (because there were fewer workers) but output per worker rose (because they were working better land). Since the number of manors did not change, each manor produced less than it did before. The manor lords tried to minimize their income losses by holding peasants to the wages and working conditions that had prevailed before the epidemic. The peasants, on the other hand, recognized that their work had become more valuable, and expected more favourable treatment from the lords. Although customary law held them to the manor, they were aware that they had options: they could join another manor (whose lord, desperate for labour, was unlikely to send them back), or join the migrant labour force that moved from manor to manor to meet the seasonal demand for labour. The peasants demanded better treatment, and the lords were generally unable to resist their demands. The wages of agricultural workers rose, and the serfs were able to reduce or eliminate many of their obligations to the lord. In some cases the lords chose to withdraw from direct management of the land, renting out their lands for cash. By the end of the fourteenth century, the land was almost exclusively farmed by labourers working for wages, or by free farmers who either paid rent or owned the land outright.

The overall impact of these changes was to convert land and labour into commodities whose prices, at least to some degree, reflected market conditions. This change, North and Thomas argue, reduced the gap between private and social valuations, making European economies more efficient.

North and Thomas note that this outcome was not inevitable. Russian lords faced the same shortage of labour, but they were more unified and more willing to use force. In the aftermath of the plague, the Russian serfs were reduced to virtual slavery, a situation that did not change until the Great Reforms of 1861. Russian serfdom, an institution that can be traced back to the eleventh century, survived into the age of the camera.


Feudalism had ceased to be an effective institution by the fifteenth century, but its imprint was visible in western Europe even in the eighteenth century. In England, for example, the land enclosures of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were implemented to replace an inefficient allocation of agricultural land, a relic of feudalism, with a more efficient one. The distribution of income at the end of the sixteenth century was also a reflection of feudalism, with the economic elite being the owners of the major estates.

Although the vestiges of feudalism remained, western Europe was turning toward a market economy by the fifteenth century. Manufactured goods were becoming increasingly important, and so was trade.

  1. Rosenberg and Birdzell, How the West Grew Rich, p. 38.
  2. According to William McNeill, “…the earliest drawings that clearly attest the existence of guns date from 1326 in Europe and 1332 in China. Both drawings portray a vase-shaped vessel, armed with an oversized arrow that projects from its mouth.” (McNeill, The Pursuit of Power, Chicago 1982, p. 81.)
  3. North and Thomas, The Rise of the Western World, p. 72.
  4. One of the Italian inhabitants of Kaffa wrote that the Mongols catapulted the bodies of their dead over Kaffa’s walls to ensure its infection. Other chroniclers make no mention of this event.
  5. The pandemic of 1347 was not the end of the plague. It revisited Europe periodically for centuries, with the Great Plague of London (1665-6), which killed about a quarter of London’s population, being one of the last major episodes. The last major outbreak in Asia was in the 1890’s,