The historians who studied the Middle Ages perceived the historical process as a regular change of the socio-economic structures. They understood the Middle Ages as the reign of the feudal mode of production, which replaced the slavery or the primitive communes. This period of time was mainly defined as the time of the development, prosperity, and decline of the feudal socio-economic structure.
Western historiography defined this period on the juridical-legal grounds and criteria. Some of Western historians believed that the main feature of the Middle Ages was the political fragmentation. Other singled out feudal hierarchy as the main feature of the Middle Ages. Still the most prominent feature of the 12th century is considered to be the rule of personal ties and connection of political power to land ownership.
The term “feudalism” came before the French Revolution (1789-1794) and meant “old order” (absolute monarchy, the rule of nobility). Feudalism is often seen as a socio-economic system that preceded capitalism. There have been distinguished four features of the feudal mode of production: 1) the dominance of subsistence farming; 2) small-scale production as the foundation of feudal production; 3) extra-economic coercion, when feudal forces the peasants to give away their food and products, or to work on the feudal land; 4) low and primitive level of technology. Modern historians analyze feudalism as a social system that existed only in Western and Central Europe in the Middle Ages, though some features of feudalism can be found in other regions of the world and in different eras. Interpersonal relationship between vassal and feudalist, between a citizen and vassal, between a farmer and large land owner is the core principal of feudalism.
Feudalism is characterized by the social class inequality, underpinned by law. Christianity served as the ideological and ethical foundation of feudalism and defined the nature of medieval culture. The formation of feudalism started around the 5th century, after the conquest of Roman Empire, and lasted till the 9th.
During its rapid growth (7-8 cc.), the citied were economically and politically strengthened. Class-representative institutions, such as the British Parliament, the French States-General, etc. appeared. Confrontations between the papacy and secular monarchy created a space for the approval of individual liberty, which gradually undermined the hierarchical caste system of feudalism. Urban economy undermined the natural-economic foundations of the aristocracy rule, and the growth of dissent led to the escalation of heretical movements, which transformed into the Reformation of the 16th century. Protestantism with its new system of ethics and values contributed to the development of the capitalist type of business. Revolutions of 16-18 centuries basically marked the end of feudalism.