Imust first state the nature of the problems with which I am concerned in this paper. As one who accepts the basic principles of historical materialism, I am nevertheless not so much concerned with debates located purely within its theoretical constructs as with the explanation of the actual historical process. It is hardly necessary to emphasize that the correct understanding of the motive forces of history is a vital pre-condition for the shaping of the future by human agency. The Marxist concept of the mode of production and, within the mode, of the relations of production, is crucial here. We begin with the knowledge that in class societies, ruling classes exist through the exploitation of the ruled; but that is not enough. We must also know the changing contours of class, and what it is which determines these changes. This implies that we must be aware of the specific, not merely the general characteristics of the society which we are examining. It would be impossible to understand a specific society in history without understanding the nature of the predominant mode of production within it, but the precise developmental process of the society considered will be determined by specific features in it—including superstructural features—as well as by the dynamic of the mode.footnote

The first problem which I wish to consider is the utility, not of the concept of the feudal mode of production as it is normally defined, but its very widespread application.

It is differentiated from the ‘slave’ or ‘ancient’ modefootnote1 in that the exploited class from which surplus is exacted is, though servile, in possession of its own means of subsistence. The serfs are an unfree peasantry. The ruling class consists of landowners/landlords who take the surplus of peasant production either in the form of labour on the demesne, rent in kind or in money. It is, of course, differentiated from the capitalist mode of production where the owners of capital exploit a free but powerless class of wage workers by the extraction of surplus value in the manufacturing process, by paying wages less than the full value of their labour.

The exploitation of servile peasants by a landowning class is widespread in world history, from Asia to the Americas, from ancient to modern times. If this is the feudal mode of production, then feudalism has been almost everywhere, at some time or another.

However, when Marx and Engels were working out their scheme of historical materialism, with the primary aim of understanding the capitalist mode of production and how it might be ended, they clearly had in mind the European feudalism of the Middle Ages. That feudalism is best analysed in the first place in terms of the ‘feudal mode’ as defined above. But, like all the many other variants of feudalism, it cannot be fully understood except as a specific social formation.

The specific features distinguishing medieval European feudalism are often supposed to be of a superstructural character, that is, part neither of the forces nor of the relations of production. These must include those relationships within the ruling class which in fact gave rise to the term ‘feudal’. The break-up of Roman imperial power, the settlement of the Germanic tribes produced a symbiosis between the great Roman landowners and their clienteles and the Germanic military chiefs and their plunder-hungry war-bands. As Georges Duby has shown,footnote2 plunder was for centuries a feature of surplus extraction in early feudal society, but eventually, as conditions settled and as agrarian technologies improved, the plunderers settled down as landlords, holding or giving out fiefs in land in return for loyalty and military service. In fact the ‘feudal’ tenures of post-Carolingian northern Europe were not universal over Europe, but the hierarchy of kings, dukes, counts and knights was fairly general as was the ethos of feudal loyalty.

An aspect of European feudalism which is normally regarded as superstructural was the fragmentation of political authority, particularly in its jurisdictional aspect. Jurisdiction—the right to brings one’s own tenants and subjects to one’s own law court—was the essence of feudal political domination, and the re-creation of state power by the feudal monarchies was largely expressed as the assertion of superior jurisdiction over as many subjects and tenants as possible. However, as we shall see, fragmented (that is, localized) jurisdiction may perhaps be better located in the relations of production, in the economic base of society, than in the superstructure. At this point therefore I turn to the mode of production underlying the European feudal social formation in order to consider its component forces and relations.