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A drawing of a noble seigneur from 1745

Seigneurialism, sometimes known as seigneurial feudalism, was a system of
organisation and land tenure used in rural France prior to the revolution.

Seigneurialism is sometimes referred to simply as “feudalism”, though this is not

correct. While seigneurialism was certainly derived from medieval feudalism and
retained some of its practices, true feudalism vanished from France some two
centuries before the revolution.

Unlike feudalism, the basis of the seigneurial system was almost entirely economic. It
required peasants who occupied land owned by a seigneur (‘lord’) to pay feudal dues
to the seigneur. Seigneurialism and feudal dues were a significant source of
dissatisfaction and grievance in the late 18th century, particularly in northern France,
where seigneurialism was more prevalent and the weight of feudal dues was heavier.

French seigneurialism was derived from medieval feudalism, the dominant political,
social and economic system in Europe during the Middle Ages. Feudalism was a
hierarchical system that organised communities so they could feed, supply and defend

Though inherently unequal, feudalism bound the different classes of society together
with a series of bonds or obligations. The lord allowed peasants or serfs to work his
land; in return, the peasants handed over a proportion of their grain or produce to the
lord. The lord also shared his land with his knights, who helped defend the realm. All
classes contributed to the church with gifts and tithes, believing these would provide
blessings from God. These feudal relationships provided medieval Europeans with
enough stability and security to survive in small communities.

A family of French peasants, painted by Le

Nain in the mid 1600s
Medieval feudalism as a system had died out in France by the 1500s. By the turn of
the 18th century, France had a strengthening national government and a rapidly
changing economy – yet remnants of feudalism lingered in many rural areas. This
diluted form of feudalism, which historians now refer to as seigneurialism, was
chiefly economic and concerned only with ownership and tenure of the land.

That some feudal practices continued within a growing capitalist economy was an
anachronism. Yet seigneurialism was defended by the French nobility and the church
– even by wealthy members of the bourgeoisie who hoped one day to
be seigneurs themselves. As historian Jack Censer puts it, “French society was a kind
of hybrid, neither entirely free of the feudal past nor entirely caught up in it”.

Seigneurialism in practice
The workings of seigneurialism were inherently one-sided, with many benefits for the
lord and few, if any, for peasants. The seigneur doled out sections of his estate in
small plots to individuals or small groups. Those who occupied and worked the
seigneur’s land were subject to a range of feudal dues, including the champart (paid in
grain or produce) and the cens (paid in cash).
Where the system was strongest, the landowner could hold a seigneurial court within
his estate and pass legal judgement on peasants who lived there; there were over
70,000 of these courts in place, though they operated infrequently. The seigneur could
also demand the much-loathed corvée, which required each male peasant to provide
several days of unpaid labour on the seigneur’s own projects, such as working his land
or repairing his house, fences, bridges or roads.
In some regions, the seigneur owned the flour mill, the baker’s oven and the grape
press – all critical infrastructure in a rural village – and demanded annual payments
for their use (banalités). The seigneur might also be the only party permitted to own
male pigs or cattle, for which he charged a stud or breeding fee.
A historian’s view:
“In the 1780s a French lord could collect a variety of monetary and material payments
from his peasants; could insist that nearby villages grind their grain in the feudal mill,
bake their bread in the feudal oven, press their grapes in the feudal wine press; could set
the date of the grape harvest; could have local cases tried in his own court; could claim
particularly favored benches in church for his family and point to family tombs below the
church floor; could take pleasures forbidden the peasants – hunting, raising rabbits or
John Markoff
Most seigneurs were nobles, though this was not always the case. Many members of
the clergy and upper bourgeoisie purchased seigneuries(feudal estates) in the 17th and
early 18th centuries. The status and trappings of the seigneur – the feudal dues,
exclusive hunting rights, an individual pew in the local church and so on – were
prestigious and highly sought after.
The seigneurial system came under attack throughout the 1700s.
Many philosophes condemned the historical origins of seigneurial dues, which
stemmed from medieval ideas of fiefdom and fealty but were without legal basis.
They also criticised the system for its inequality, noting that in some seigneuries the
peasants existed as virtual slaves.
Several radical theorists believed seigneurial economics held back agricultural
production; a more open labour market, they argued, would benefit economic
progress. The administration and paperwork involved in maintaining the seigneurial
system was also extensive and complex. Unlike the Middle Ages, 18th-century feudal
dues were usually outlined in contracts and deeds associated with land tenure.

A cause of revolution?
A Third Estate cahier from early 1789
To what extent was seigneurialism a cause of the French Revolution? Historians have
long pondered this question. It is difficult to answer definitively because
seigneurialism was a regional phenomenon that took different forms and evoked
different responses.

Seigneurial dues, for example, were applied differently from place to place and were
levied more rigorously in some regions than others. They were proportionately
heavier in northern France than in the south, for example, at least for collecting
the champart and cens.
Despite this uneven application, opposition to seigneurial dues was fairly common
across France. The best evidence for this can be found in the cahiers de doléance, the
grievance books drawn up in early 1789 for submission to the Estates-General.
Rigorous studies of cahiers drafted by the Third Estate show little or no support for
retaining feudal rights as they stood. The majority of the cahiers (55 per cent)
suggested abolishing the champart and cens, albeit with some compensation to
the seigneur. A smaller proportion (36 per cent) suggested reforming or merging these
payments. The cahiers were similarly opposed to the banalités, arguing that they be
abolished with (43 per cent) or without (40 per cent) compensation to the seigneur.

1. Seigneurialism was a system of land tenure used in some rural areas of 18th century
France. It was derived from and contained aspects of medieval feudalism.
2. Unlike medieval feudalism, which connected social classes and provided stability
and security in a small community, 18th-century seigneurialism took the form of a
land contract between the seigneur(lord or landowner) and the peasant farmer.
3. In seigneurial holdings, peasants were required to make annual payments to
the seigneur, either in cash (cens) or with produce (champart). The seigneur also
charged taxes for using infrastructure like the flour mill, wine press and baker’s oven
4. The seigneur could also demand a period of unpaid labour from his tenants, called
the corvée. Many peasants were also subject to seigneurial courts, which were
overseen by the seigneur.
5. The feudal dues imposed under seigneurialism, while not applied uniformly across
France, were nevertheless unpopular. This is reflected in the cahiers de
doléance drafted by the Third Estate in early 1789.
Citation information
Title: “Seigneurialism”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
URL: https://alphahistory.com/frenchrevolution/seigneurialism/
Date published: July 5, 2018
Date accessed: September 06, 2019
Copyright: The content on this page may not be republished without our express permission. For more
information on usage, please refer to our Terms of Use.

What Is Feudalism?
Once common in Middle Ages Europe, feudalism is a combination of
military and legal customs based on the right of holding land in
exchange for labor.
Depiction of socage on the royal demesne in feudal England, c. 1310


What Is Feudalism?

Feudalism was a socio-political and economic structure used during the Middle
Ages in Western Europe. Under this system, people were granted land in return
for certain services. Feudalism was practiced throughout every social class
For example, the king held the highest social class and divided all of the
nation’s lands among several barons. In exchange for this land, the barons
promised loyalty and soldiers to the king. These large tracts of land were known
as fiefs. The Barons maintained armies and further divided their land among
lords. The lords were knights and owed military service to the barons in the
event of war. They also ran manors, large houses or castles, on their lands.
These manors were central to life in the countryside and provided a place for
both celebrations and protection for the villagers. The lords provided plots of
land to the peasant class for farming and producing food. Some of the peasants
had businesses like metalwork or bakeries. They paid taxes to the lord in
exchange for land holding. Lords and Barons are also referred to as vassals.
History Of Feudalism

The practice of feudalism in Europe is believed to have begun around the 8th
century AD in the Frankish kingdom. Previously, land grants had been
permanent with full ownership. Around this time, however, the Kings decided to
keep ownership of the land and grant only its use. This idea soon spread
throughout other areas of Europe, including Spain, Germany, Italy, and Slavic
lands. Sometime around 1066 AD, feudalism made its way to England with the
Norman invasion. From here, it spread to Scotland and Ireland.
Although feudalism began as a bond between the king and vassal, over time,
this also changed. Land holdings became hereditary rather than based on an
agreement between two parties. When it became a largely hereditary system,
feudalism began to take power away from the monarch as local dynasties began
to grow. These dynasties established territorial states. In some cases, this led to
the privatization of once-public goods or right. Landholders began charging
taxes for traveling by roads, selling in markets, and using the forests. This gave
significant power to the vassals.
What Is Feudalism?
Feudalism referred to medieval Europe’s dominant social system where land
was held by nobility was assigned lands by the crown in exchange of military
service. The nobles allowed the common people, especially peasants, to stay and
farm in the land owned by them and give them military protection in exchange
of their service in the form of labor or a share of the crop produce.
Decline Of Feudalism

Feudalism began to decline due to several factors. The Black Death rampaged
European communities, leaving fewer individuals of lower social classes to be
ruled by the upper class. Labor became a scarce commodity, thus having more
value and leading to a system of monetary reimbursement for work.
Additionally, the monarchy began to rely on paid and trained armies rather than
the forces provided by vassals. With this move, the monarchs were able to strip
vassals of some power.
Countries also saw a rise in the number of cities over rural settlements. Cities
could often offer more protection than countryside living, with their moats and
walls. These cities grew in importance, contributing to the overall economy and
often forming armies. Urban areas became more powerful than the landholding
With these changes, the economies of most countries began to run on money
rather than land and agriculture. As this occurred, peasants sought to make new
lives in the cities, where they could eventually gain their freedom. People from
all levels of society began to demand representation for taxes paid.
Throughout most of Western Europe, feudalism ceased to exist by the 1500’s. It
did, however, leave behind a legacy that has influenced present-day forms of

Pariona, Ameber. (2017, April 25). What Is Feudalism? Retrieved from