It’ll be a long time before people can expect to see sensible school curricula in the UK. Any time anybody talks about certain subjects in history it’s taken as read that the the book is closed on these matters: The feudal system and serfdom are interchangeable and synonymous. Well, not so fast, bucky. Feudalism – specifically manorialism – is the stratification of a society on the basis of land ownership and tenancy, with rent paid in money, in kind, and in labour. Serfdom is a condition akin to slavery whereby a caste of peasants are tied for life to the landholding in which they are born, unless they can get the permission of their lord to leave for some reason. There, that wasn’t so difficult to understand, now, was it? Unfortunately that’s still not the whole story…

As Adelberon said, “feudalism is awesome!” OK, the good monk said nothing of the sort. Rather, he described the social order – nobody used the word ‘feudalism’ at the time, making it a retronym – in his time as the interdependence of three castes of humanity; the clergy, the lords and the laity. The fancy Latin names for the three castes in the diagram below make the point that one group is bigger than the others put together; the laity, which takes in all landed serfs and urban folk. While 11th Century monks didn’t have Illustrator to make fancy pyramid graphics of their ideas, it’s a neat way of summarising a popular view of European society’s organisation at the time it was actually organised that way. This illustration is feudalism.

Note that there’s nothing about servitude in the laboradores category, and so no reference to serfdom. The oratores were of course the intellectual as well as spiritual apologists for the stratified society of the time, where land ownership was turned into a closed shop for the bellatores to fight over. OK, over a period of several centuries it became more and more common for people to buy their way into the landed class, and for land to change hands more peacefully. Indeed, by the 17th Century in England there were peasants who actually owned the land they lived on. So the bellicose bellatores belatedly cooled off in the Late Mediaeval period and morphed into the governments we all know and love today.

We all know what’s coming now; cue overwrought modern feudalism metaphors! Marx appears to have seen this feudal order as a kind of oppressive superstructure holding people back from achieving their full potential. While it’s tempting right now to throw ad homs his way, there’s no sense in doing so because the dead socialist has a point. Granted, if feudalism is the enforced division of the realm into three estates – the clergy being at the top in Adelberon’s eyes, naturally – then there is no intrinsic need for any kind of violent oppression for a nominally feudal order to exist. The fact such violence was routine is more a function of the nobles fighting each other over land and not the strata of titles to land. Nay, the propertarian aspect of feudalism is not a problem, rather the political aspect is.

How do we compare the three tiers of days gone by to today’s social order? Is it in any way still in place? Of course! OK, granted, the three estates are not entrenched in property matters anymore, meaning any two parties can contract to trade title to parcels of land without consulting a bellatore, unless the purchase comes from outside the country. That proviso is true in both the UK and US. As for the feudal pyramid today: If one were to place the media, schools and universities in the oratores category, and politicians, civil servants, cops and soldiers under bellatores, with all the rest of us underneath, the pyramid would still work even in this age of social-democratic bliss. Maybe because of it, in fact. The laboradores are taxpayers, after all.

Feudal economics is a thing of the past, though the original conservatives fought liberals to preserve its corporatist and mercantilist elements, and the social democrats of today seem to glory in just the kinds of intervention that would have animated the earliest Tories against the Whigs. Of course, nowadays we have the delights of creeping totalitarianism as the state slithers into and penetrates every orifice of our private lives in a grand project to render us naked, defenceless, and in hock forever. Does feudalism imply anything one way or another about slavery and its lesser cousin serfdom? No it doesn’t. Does it imply constant feuding? Alas, silly question but bound to come up. Again, the answer is clearly no despite the designation of the landholders.

In theory a stateless feudalism would make plenty of room for trade in title to land, and so open the floodgates to capitalism – entrepreneurship meeting finance, both motivated by profit & loss – and so to prosperity Granted, it probably wouldn’t be feudalism for terribly long, as a class of non-working holymen and intellectuals would have a hard time soliciting enough donations unless their work really added value to their donors’ lives. Such an entirely voluntary capitalism would be the end of feudalism once and for all. We may yet see that end, some lucky few of us alive today, before our light goes out.