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Feudalism, system of social, economic, and political relationships that shaped society in medieval Europe. It originated in the 9th century and flourished from the 10th to the 13th centuries. The system rested on the obedience and service of a vassal to his lord in return for protection, maintenance, and, most particularly, a tenancy of land (a fief). The duty owed by a vassal included military service, counsel and attendance at court, and contribution towards the lord's extraordinary expenditures, such as ransoms or dowries. At the apex of the social pyramid was the king, vassal only to God. His vassals were his great nobles, holding land or some other source of income in fief from him. They in turn invested, or enfeoffed, their own vassals, the lords of the manor (seigneurs or suzerains). At the base of the pyramid were the serfs, or villeins, permanently tied to the land. They worked both for the lord and for themselves, unpaid. Serfdom offered a degree of security in that, if a serf could not leave the land, neither could it be taken from him. In effect feudalism tended to allow vassal lords unrestricted freedom, at least in their own holdings. With the tendency towards centralized government this liberty was curbed. The system assumed a subsistence economy; the growth of trade and of economically powerful towns attacked. By the 15th century the system was dying out, although many feudal institutions persisted into the 19th century.

See also: Middle Ages.

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