FEUDALISM — which was essentially a political and military system — was above all a personal set of mutual obligations between lord and vassal. At its heart was the oath of loyalty. Before witnesses, a vassal placed his clasped hands between those of the lord and pledged to become “his man,” a relationship usually sealed by a kiss between the two men. The vassal then took an oath of faithfulness. For his part, the lord also promised to “do justice” for the vassal and his family. If he failed to ensure such justice, the vassal might rightfully conclude that the bonds of the relationship had been broken, and that the lord was no longer owed his loyalty. Under the manorial system, the primary economic system that supported feudalism, the lord allowed the peasants to work the land on his estate(s)—or manor(s)—in return for a fixed payment.
Feudal Society is a great work of historical synthesis in the finest French tradition. The author treats feudalism as a living and vitalising force in the society of Western Europe from the ninth to the thirteenth century. After surveying the social and intellectual conditions in which feudalism developed, Bloch examines the nature of the bond of kinship both as a predecessor and as a concomitant of vassalage. The core of the book is a masterly account of the creation of ties of dependence and of relations of lord and vassal, and the origins and nature of the fief. The nobility and their way of life, knighthood and chivalry, the clergy and other forces in society are also portrayed, and the work concludes with a discussion on feudalism as a type of society. Throughout the author treats history as a living organism and endless process of creative evolution. “Here is one of those rare books of impeccable scholarship (superbly translated by Mr Manyon) which no intelligent person could possibly read without pleasure and interest and excitement. What Bloch’s book gives us is the anatomy of an age. Some would call it sociology rather than history, or at any rate historical sociology. If so, it adds a new dimension which most historical writing lacks.”—GEOFFREY BARRACLOUGH, The Observer