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Durham University

Postgraduate Module Handbook 2021/2022

Archive Module Description

This page is for the academic year 2021-22. The current handbook year is 2022-23

Department: History

HIST45030: Feudalism: The Uses and Abuses of a Historical Model

Type Open Level 4 Credits 30 Availability Not available in 2021/22


  • None


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • To help students gain a deep, critical understanding of the various modern scholarly models of how medieval society was organised that come under the heading of 'feudalism'. Through group discussion, careful critical reading of primary and secondary material, and an extended summative essay, we will explore a controversial and central conundrum of history-writing from a variety of perspectives.


  • Feudalism is one of those words that irritate and inspire in equal measure—a concept so debated, criticised, and (mis)used that it has become both a cliché and vague to the point of uselessness. Any historian could be forgiven for avoiding the word altogether; and in fact certain scholars have encouraged (sometimes commanded) their students and colleagues ‘to eliminate both word and concept from professional writing on the Middle Ages’ (Fredric L. Cheyette). But ‘feudalism’ and the middle ages—at least in western Europe—remain wedded, in both popular and scholarly imagination. Feudalism as a social model was invented not by historians, but by lawyers—comparative jurists of the early modern period, who built on a complex and understudied body of medieval law known as the ‘right of fiefs’. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries its implications grew well beyond the legal, however, and feudalism engaged some of the most brilliant minds of modern historical and sociological thinking, from Karl Marx to Marc Bloch. Many historians still find the term useful, even if they disagree about how and when to apply it.
  • In this module we confront the issue head-on: what is and was feudalism? We will do this by first adopting a historiographical approach, and looking at the various scholarly models which have used the word feudalism or a related term to describe medieval society: materialist models of a ‘feudal mode of production’ (Marx); legal models of a society based on ‘feudo-vassalic bonds’ (Ganshof, Mitteis); the notion of a ‘feudal society’ (Bloch, Duby); and the related idea of a ‘feudal transformation’ around the year 1000 (Poly/Bournazel, Bisson). We will also look at the principal criticisms of feudalism (Otto Brunner, Cheyette, Brown, Reynolds), and the reactions that they have inspired in turn. Second, we will consider a set of core primary sources, and the reactions that they have inspired in turn. Second, we will consider a set of core primary sources—texts which have inspired modern scholars of feudalism—from the medieval and early modern periods, and read them in light of the historiographical seminars. We will think of how feudal models relate to other historical developments and phenomena: the Norman Conquest, the professionalisation of law, the rise of knighthood, the rise of serfdom, the marginalisation of women in medieval society. This will give you a chance to relate the module to your own interests in your summative essay. We will also broach the issue of whether feudal terminology can be used to describe non-European societies. You will all be encouraged to make up your minds whether feudalism still has a role to play in scholarly discussions about medieval Europe, or should be ditched completely in favour of a more innocent terminology.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • advanced knowledge and understanding of aspects of the history of medieval social organisation and modern interpretations of medieval society
  • a knowledge and understanding of aspects of the advanced historiography of 'feudalism', and of the relevant secondary literature
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Subject specific skills for this module can be viewed at:
Key Skills:
  • Key skills for this module can be viewed at:

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • Student learning is facilitated by a range of teaching methods.
  • Seminars and group discussion require students to reflect on and discuss: their prior knowledge and experience; set reading of secondary and, where appropriate, primary readings; information provided during the session. They provide a forum in which to assess and comment critically on the findings of others, defend their conclusions in a reasoned setting, and advance their knowledge and understanding of medieval society and modern scholarly models of medieval society.
  • Structured reading requires students to focus on set materials integral to the knowledge and understanding of the module. It specifically enables the acquisition of detailed knowledge and skills which will be discussed in other areas of the teaching and learning experience.
  • Assessment is by means of a 5000 word essay which requires the acquisition and application of advanced knowledge and understanding of aspects of the history and historiography of feudalism in its various forms, and of relevant theoretical and comparative approaches from other disciplines. Essays require a sustained and coherent argument in defence of a hypothesis, and must be presented in a clearly written and structured form, and with appropriate apparatus.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Seminar 10 Weekly in Term 1 2 hours 20
Reading and Preparation 280
Total 300

Summative Assessment

Component: Essay Component Weighting: 100%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Essay 5000 words 100%

Formative Assessment:

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University