There is a common misconception that feudalism ended abruptly because of peasant rebellions or the Black Death. In reality, though, feudalism evolved into more modern systems of government and economics over time as society became more urbanized and as peasants became more productive workers. While these changes began to take place in the 1200s and 1300s, feudalism did not fully end until the 1500s.
The feudal system began to crack in the 11th century, as peasant rebellions spread across Europe. These revolts were usually triggered by one of two problems: either peasants were forced to work for the lord without pay and with no guarantee that they would be able to survive their time there, or peasants discovered that they could not leave the land they were born on. This put them at a disadvantage when compared with their wealthier neighbors who had more freedom of movement.
Peasants stopped farming and became bandits.
It’s possible that the end of feudalism came about because peasants stopped farming and became bandits. This is good news for the peasants, but bad news for feudal lords. The reason they were able to do this was because they were angry at how they had been treated by their lords. They called themselves the Robin Hoods, and they became heroes to everyone who didn’t like feudalism.
Black death killed too many peasants to work the land.
In 1348, a pandemic known as the Black Death spread from Asia into Europe. The disease was caused by bacteria carried by fleas, which were transmitted to humans by rats. The epidemic killed an estimated one third of Europe’s population and destroyed feudalism’s labor system.
Because peasants were so important to agriculture, their deaths left lords without enough workers to cultivate their lands. The remaining peasants could demand higher wages or refuse to work if they wanted too much money for their efforts. This led to a sharp fall in agricultural output and less food reaching markets across Europe—which further weakened feudalism by reducing consumer demand for goods manufactured by lords.
Peasants became urbanized.
Peasants migrated to cities in order to find work and make money. They were more productive in urban settings, which made them more profitable. They were also more convenient and comfortable than the farms they left behind.
Feudalism ended because of peasant rebellions and the Black Death, but also because of changes to society that created a demand for more productive workers.
- Peasants rebelled and refused to work
- Peasants became bandits
- Black death killed too many peasants to work the land
- Peasants became urbanized
Feudalism collapsed when peasants stopped being peasants. The Black Death and peasant revolts helped speed up the end of feudalism, but what really changed the face of Europe was a new class of citizens: urbanized laborers who demanded better rights for themselves and their families.