Friedrich Engels

The Decline of Feudalism and the Rise of the Bourgeoisie

Written: 1884;
First Published: From an unfinished manuscript discovered amongst Engels posthumous papers: "Ueber den Verfall des Feudalismus and das Aufkommen der Bourgeoisie", Berlin DDR, 1953;
Source: Monthly Review, April 1957, pp. 445-454;
Translated: John K. Dickinson;
Transcription/Markup: Steve Palmer;
Proofread: Steve Palmer;
Copyleft: Monthly Review.

While the chaotic battles among the dominant feudal nobility were filling the Middle Ages with sound and fury, the quiet labours of the oppressed classes all over Western Europe were undermining the feudal system and creating a state of affairs in which there was less and less room for the feudal lords. True, in the countryside, the feudality might still assert itself, torturing the serfs, flourishing on their sweat, riding down their crops, ravishing their wives and daughters. But cities were rising everywhere: in Italy, in Southern France, and on the Rhine, the old Roman municipalities were emerging from their ashes; elsewhere, and particularly in central Germany, they were new creations. In all cases, they were ringed by protective walls and moats, fortresses far stronger than the castles of the nobility because they could be taken only by large armies. Behind these walls and moats, medieval craft production, guild-bound and petty though it was, developed; capital accumulation began; the need for trade with other cities and with the rest of the world arose; and, gradually, with the need there also arose the means of protecting this trade.

As early as the fifteenth century, the townspeople played a more crucial role in society than the feudality. To be sure, it was still true that agriculture occupied the largest proportion of the population and thus remained the chief mode of production. Nevertheless, the few isolated free peasants, who had managed to hold out here and there against the rapaciousness of the nobles were adequate proof that it was the work of the peasants and not the sloth and oppression of the nobles which made the crops grow.

At the same time, the needs of the nobility itself had so increased and changed that even they could not do without the cities: after all, it was in the cities that the noble obtained his own special "tools" – armour and weapons. Domestic textiles, furniture and ornament, Italian silk, the laces of Brabant, furs from the North, the perfumes of Araby, fruits from the Levant, and spices from India: everything but soap he had to buy from the townspeople. A certain degree of international trade had already developed: the Italians sailed the Mediterranean and along the Atlantic Coast as far north as Flanders; in the face of increasing English and Dutch competition, the Hanseatic League continued to dominate the North Sea and the Baltic Sea; the connection between the trade centres of the South and those of the North was overland, on roads which passed through Germany. Thus while the nobility was becoming increasingly superfluous and more and more obstructive to progress, the townspeople were coming to form the class which embodied the further development of production and commerce, of education, and of social and political institutions.

Judged by today's standards, all these advances in production and exchange were of a very limited scope. Production remained confined within the pattern of guild craftsmanship, and thus itself retained feudal characteristics; trade continued to be restricted to European waters and did not venture farther than the coastal cities of the Levant where the products of the Far East were taken aboard. Yet, petty though industry and the businessman remained, they were adequate to overturn feudal society; and they at least remained in motion, while the nobility stagnated.

In this situation the urban citizenry had a mighty weapon against feudalism: money. There was scarcely room for money in the typical feudal economy in the early Middle Ages. The lord obtained everything he needed from his serfs, either in the form of services, or in the form of finished products. Flax and wool were spun, woven into cloth, and made into clothing by the serfs' women; the man tilled the fields, and the children tended the lord's cattle and gathered for him the fruits of the forest, bird-nests, firewood; in addition, the whole family had to deliver up grain, fruit, eggs, butter, cheese, poultry, calves, and who knows how much else. Each feudal domain was sufficient unto itself; even feudal military obligations were taken in kind; trade and exchange were absent and money was superfluous. Europe had declined to so low a level, had retrogressed so far, that money at this time served far less a social function than it did a political: it was used for the payment of taxes, and was acquired chiefly by robbery.

All that had changed by the fifteenth century. Money was again becoming a general medium of exchange, so that the amount of it in circulation was much greater than it had been. Even the noble needed it now, and since he had little or nothing to sell, since also banditry had ceased to be easy, he was faced with the necessity of calling on the urban money-lender. Long before the ramparts of the baronial castles were breached by the new artillery, they had already been undermined by money; in fact, gunpowder could be described as an executor of the judgment rendered by money. The citizenry of the towns used money as a carpenter uses his plane: as a tool to level political inequality. Wherever a personal relationship was replaced by a monetary relationship, a rendering of goods by a rendering of money, that was the place where a bourgeois pattern took the place of a feudal pattern. By and large, of course, the brutal system of "natural economy" remained in most cases. Nevertheless, there were already entire districts where, as in Holland, Belgium, and along the lower Rhine, the peasants paid money instead of goods and services to their overlords; where master and man had taken the first decisive steps in the direction of becoming landowner and tenant; and where, consequently, even in the countryside the political institutions of feudalism began to lose their social basis.

How deeply the foundations of the feudality had been weakened and its structure corroded by money around the end of the fifteenth century, is strikingly evident in the lust for gold which possessed Western Europe at this time. It was gold that the Portuguese sought on the African coast, in India and the whole Far East; gold was the magic word which lured the Spaniards over the ocean to America; gold was the first thing the whites asked for when they set foot on a newly discovered coast. But this compulsion to embark on distant adventures in search of gold, however feudal were the forms which it took at first, was nonetheless basically incompatible with feudalism, the foundation of which was agriculture and the conquests of which were directed at the acquisition of land. To this it must be added that shipping was definitely a bourgeois business, a fact which has stamped every modern navy with an anti-feudal character.

So it was that the feudality of all Western Europe was in full decline during the fifteenth century. Everywhere cities, with their anti-feudal interests, their own law, and their armed citizenry had wedged themselves into feudal territories; had, through money, in part established their social – and here and there even their political – ascendancy over the feudal lords. Even in the countryside, in those areas where agriculture was favoured by special circumstances, the old feudal ties began to dissolve under the influence of money; only in newly opened territories (such as the German lands east of the Elbe) or in other remote regions away from the trade routes, did the domination of the nobility continue to flourish. Everywhere, however, there had been an increase in those elements in the population, rural as well as urban, which insistently demanded that the senseless and eternal fighting should stop, that there should be an end to the feuds among the lords which produced a perpetual state of domestic warfare even when a foreign enemy was at the gates, that the uninterrupted, wholly purposeless devastation which had lasted throughout the entire Middle Ages should cease. Though these elements were still too weak to impose their own will, they found a sturdy support at the very top of the feudal heap: the monarchy. And it is at this point that analysis of social relations leads to consideration of the relations within and among states; here is where we proceed from economics to politics.

The new nationalities had arisen gradually out of the confusion of peoples which characterized the early Middle Ages. This is a process, in which, as is well known, the conquered assimilated the conquerors in the once Roman provinces; the peasants and townspeople absorbed the Germanic masters. Modern nationalities are thus the creations of the oppressed classes. Menke's district map of central Lorraine[1] gives us a clear picture of the manner in which here a mixing, there a sorting out, took place. One need only follow the line which divides the German from the Roman place names in order to convince oneself that this line in Belgium and lower Lorraine very nearly coincides with the linguistic boundary between German and French as it existed as late as the last quarter of the 18th century. Here and there a small area could be found in which predominance of language was still a matter of dispute. But by and large the dispute had already been settled, and which area should remain German, which Roman, had been established. The Old Lower Frankish and Old High German forms of most place names on the map go to prove, however, that they belong to the 9th, or at the latest the 10th century, and that, therefore, the boundaries had already been drawn by the end of the Carolingian period. Now it is interesting that we find, on the Roman side, and especially in the vicinity of the linguistic border, bastard name forms, made up of a German personal name and a Roman place name; thus, for example, west of the Maas, near Verdun: Eppone curtis, Rotfridi curtis, Ingolini curtis, Teudegisilo villa. Today these are, respectively, Ippecourt, Recourt la Creux, Amblaincourt sur Aire, and Thierville. These were Frankish manors, small German colonies in Roman territory, which sooner or later succumbed to Romanization. In the cities, and in individual rural stretches, there were more resistant German colonies which retained their language for a longer time; in one of these, for example, the Ludwigslied originated at the end of the 9th century. But the fact that Romance appeared as the official language of France on the oath – formulas of the kings and notables in 842 proves that a larger part of the Frankish masters had by that time been Romanized.

Once the language groups had been fixed and their boundaries established (though account must be taken of later wars of conquest and extermination, such as those against the Slays of the Elbe), it was natural that they should serve as established foundations for the building of states, that the nationalities should begin to develop towards nations. The rapid collapse of the linguistically-mixed state of Lorraine suggests the importance of language uniformity. To be sure, linguistic boundaries and national boundaries were far from coinciding with one another during the entire Middle Ages; nevertheless, every nationality, the Italian to some extent excepted, was represented by a particular large state; and the tendency towards the formation of national states, which appeared with ever greater clarity and consciousness, provided one of the most fundamental of the levers by which progress was attained in the Middle Ages.

In each of these medieval states, the king was the apex of the entire feudal hierarchy – an apex which the vassals could not dispense with, and against which, at the same time, they found themselves in a state of permanent rebellion. The characteristic relationship of the whole feudal economy – the granting of rights to the use of land on condition that certain personal services and certain goods be rendered – provided in its original and simplest form plenty of occasion for quarrels, especially where there were so many who had an interest in any dispute. How was it now in the later Middle Ages, at a time when the feudal relations in every land were a hopeless snarl of granted, withdrawn, renewed, forfeited, changed, or otherwise qualified rights and duties? Charles the Bold, for example, was a vassal of the Holy Roman Emperor for part of his lands; in other parts, he was a vassal of the King of France. On the other hand, the King of France, Charles' lord in regard to these territories, was the vassal of Charles in regard to others. How could conflict be avoided in a situation like that? Here we see the explanation of the centuries-long counterpoint between the attraction of the vassals to the monarchy (for only the monarch could protect them from enemies outside and inside the system) and the repulsion away from the monarchy into which that attraction ceaselessly and inevitably shifted; of the uninterrupted battle between the monarch and the vassals, the ugly cacophony of which drowned out all others during the long period when banditry was the only source of income worthy of a free man; of the endless sequence of betrayal, assassination, poisonings, malice, and every other conceivable villainy, a sequence which, stopped for a moment, would always renew itself, hiding behind the poetic label of Chivalry and speaking in terms of Honour and Fidelity.

It is obvious that the monarchy was the progressive element in this general confusion. It represented order in chaos, the developing nation as against fragmentation into rebellious vassal-states. All the revolutionary elements which were coming into being under the feudal surface were as inclined to dependence on the monarchy as the monarchy was inclined to dependence on them. The alliance between monarchy and bourgeoisie dates from the tenth century; often disrupted by conflicts – for during the Middle Ages no movement was free of zigs and zags – the alliance was always renewed, stronger and more potent, until it enabled the monarchy to attain final victory; whereupon, the monarchy, in gratitude, turned on its allies to oppress and plunder them.

King and bourgeoisie found powerful support in the rising profession of jurist. With the rediscovery of Roman Law there came into being a division of labour between the clergy, the legal counsellors of feudal times, and the non-clerical students of jurisprudence. These new jurists were from the beginning predominantly bourgeois. But not only that: the law which they studied, lectured on, and practiced had an essentially anti-feudal and in certain respects bourgeois character. Roman Law is to so great an extent the classic juridical expression of the living conditions and frictions of a society in which the dominating concept is one of pure private property, that all later legislation could add but little to it in this respect. Bourgeois property in the Middle Ages was, however, still permeated with feudal limitations; it consisted, for example, largely of privileges. Thus Roman Law was in this regard an advance on the bourgeois relationships of the time. Yet the further historical development of bourgeois property could only be in the direction of pure private property, and this indeed is what happened. The lever of the Roman Law, which contained ready made everything to which the bourgeoisie of the later Middle Ages was still unconsciously striving, clearly added enormously to the strength and pace of this development.

Even though the Roman Law offered a pretext in many individual cases for the increased oppression of the peasants by the nobility – for example, wherever the peasants were unable to furnish documentary proof of their freedom from obligations which were otherwise customary – this does not change the principle at issue. The nobility would have found adequate pretexts without the Roman Law, and did find them, daily. Beyond question, it was a mighty advance when a system of law was established which did not rest on feudal relations and which fully anticipated modern ideas of private property.

We have seen how the feudal nobility began to become superfluous and even economically detrimental in the society of the late Middle Ages; how it already stood politically in the way of the development of the cities and of the national state, for which a monarchical form was the only possibility at the time. Despite these facts, the nobility had been preserved by the circumstance that hitherto it had had a monopoly on the bearing of arms, by the fact that without the noble no war could be waged, no battle fought. Even this was to change, and the last step was to be taken which would make abundantly clear to the feudal lord that his period of social and political domination was at an end, and that even in his capacity as knight, even on the battlefield, he was no longer useful.

To fight feudalism with an army which was itself feudal, the members of which were more closely bound to their immediate lord than the royal army command, would have been to move in a vicious circle. From the beginning of the 14th century, the kings strive constantly to emancipate themselves from feudal armies, to create their own armies. It is from this period that we find an ever increasing proportion of recruited or hired troops in the royal armies. In the beginning, they were mostly infantry, the dregs of the city, fugitive serfs – Lombards, Genoese, Germans, Belgians, and the like – used for the occupation of towns and the siege of fortresses, since at first they were scarcely serviceable on the field of battle itself. Nevertheless, before the end of the Middle Ages we also find the knights, who are already contracting themselves and their god-knows-how recruited followers into the mercenary service of foreign princes, and in so doing announcing the hopeless doom of the feudal military system.

Simultaneously there arose the basic prerequisite of a militarily competent infantry in the cities and among the free peasants, where the latter had persisted or had once again emerged. Prior to this, the knights and their mounted followers had formed not so much the nucleus of the army as the army itself; the gang of accompanying serfs, the "footmen" hardly counted: it seemed – on the battlefield – to be present merely for flight and plunder. As long as feudalism flourished, until the end of the 13th century, the cavalry fought and decided every battle. From then on, however, the situation changed; and it changed in many aspects simultaneously. In England, the gradual disappearance of serfdom gave rise to a numerous class of free peasants, yeomen or tenants, and therewith to the new material for a new infantry, practiced in the use of the longbow which was, at the time, the English national weapon. The introduction of these archers, who always fought on foot though they might or might not be mounted on the march, was the occasion for an essential change in the tactics of the English armies. From the 14th century on, the English knighthood preferred to fight on foot wherever the terrain or other circumstances made it appropriate. Behind the archers, who started the battle and softened up the enemy, the dismounted knights awaited the enemy attack in a closed phalanx, or waited for a favourable opportunity to break out with an attack themselves. Only part of the knights remained on their horses in order to help in the decision by flank attacks. The unbroken succession of English victories in France at this time is to be attributed primarily to this reintroduction of a defensive element into the army; for the most part, they were as much defensive battles followed by offensive counter-attacks as were the victories of Wellington in Spain and Belgium. With the adoption of the new tactic by the French – which was possible because mercenary Italian crossbowmen could be used as the counterpart of the English archers the victorious surge of the English was brought to a halt. It was likewise at the beginning of the 14th century that the infantry of the Flemish cities had dared to oppose the French knighthood in open battle – and they were often successful. The emperor Albert, in his attempt to betray the Swiss peasants into subjection to the Archduke of Austria, who happened to be Albert himself, gave the stimulus to the formation of the first modern infantry of European repute. In the triumphs of the Swiss over the Austrians and, in particular, over the Burgundians, lay the final succumbing of armour, mounted or not, to infantry; of the feudal army to the beginnings of the modern army; of the knight to the townsman and peasant. And the Swiss immediately went on to turn their martial prowess into hard cash, thereby establishing from the word go the bourgeois character of their republic, the first independent republic in Europe. All political considerations disappeared; the cantons converted themselves into recruiting offices in order to corral mercenaries to offer to the highest bidder. Elsewhere, too, and particularly in Germany, the recruiting drum went around. But the cynicism of the Swiss regime, whose sole purpose appeared to be the sale of its sons, went unequalled until the German princes, in the period of deepest national abasement, surpassed it.

It was also in the 14th century that gunpowder and artillery were brought into Europe from the Arabs, by way of Spain. Until the end of the Middle Ages, small firearms remained unimportant, which is understandable in view of the fact that the longbows of the English archers at Crecy reached as far, and with perhaps as much accuracy if not with the same effect, as the smooth-bore muskets of the infantry at Waterloo. Field artillery was likewise still in its infancy. In contrast to this, however, the heavy cannon had already breached the unsupported walls of many a knight's castle, thus announcing to the feudal nobility that the advent of gunpowder had sealed its doom.

The spread of the printer's art, the renaissance of the study of the ancient literatures, the whole cultural ferment which became constantly stronger and more general after 1450 – all these things favoured the bourgeoisie and monarchy in their conflict with feudalism. The concatenation of all these factors, strengthened from year to year by their increasingly dynamic interaction on one another in the same direction, was the fact which, in the last half of the 15th century, confirmed the victory, not, to be sure, of the bourgeoisie, but certainly of the monarchy, over feudalism. Everywhere in Europe, right into those more remote areas which bordered on it and had not passed through the feudal stage, the royal power suddenly got the upper hand. Behind the Pyrenees, two of the Romance language groups of the area united to form the Kingdom of Spain and subjugated the Provencal-speaking nation of Aragon to the Castilian written language. The third group consolidated its language area, with the exception of Galicia, into the Kingdom of Portugal, the Iberian Holland; turned its face seaward; and proved its right to a separate existence by its maritime activity. In France, Louis XI finally – after the downfall of the Burgundian buffer state – created a monarchical national unity in the still very limited French territory to such good effect that his successor was already able to meddle in Italian squabbles. The fact is that its existence was threatened only once – by the Reformation – in later years. England had finally given up its quixotic wars of conquest in France: in the long run, it would have bled itself white in these wars. The English feudal nobility sought substitute recreation in the Wars of the Roses. It got more than it bargained for: tearing itself to pieces in these wars, it brought the House of Tudor to the throne, and the royal power of the House of Tudor surpassed everything that had gone before or was to come after. The Scandinavian countries had long since been unified. After its union with Lithuania, Poland was on the way to its period of greatest glory, with a kingly power as yet undiminished. Even in Russia, the overthrow of the princes and the throwing off of the Tatar yoke went hand in hand and were completed by Ivan III. In all of Europe, there were only two countries in which the Monarchy, and the national unity which at that time was impossible without it, had not arisen, or existed only on paper: Italy and Germany.



1. Spruner-Menke, Handatlas zur Geschichte des Mittelalters and der neueren Zeit, 3rd Ed., Gotha 1874, map no. 32.