[Feudal Pyramid, Source: Ol' King Cole's Castle]
Then there’s the more specific but still seemingly simple “fief-holding.” Lord A holds a chunk of land “in fief” to Lord B. Though Lord B is the one who actually owns the land, Lord A is the one who sees to its administration and collects the revenue it produces. In return, Lord A swears fealty and service (often military) to Lord B, who generally higher in rank. Also fairly tidy, but less vague. And a gross oversimplification if it’s left at that.
Now we come to Karl Marx, who considered purpose of the whole system to be of the exploitation of the peasants. He also seemed to think it worked exactly the same way (see above plus exploitation) from the 5th century to the French Revolution. That’s more than 1300 years, people. Unchanged and the same all over Europe for that long. Really?
Lastly there are the throwaway uses for the word “feudalism” and the related word “feudal.” They become synonyms for “decentralization,” “noble,” or even “medieval.” At this point is there even any meaning left in the word?
Stop. Just stop. Please. Don’t use “feudalism” or “feudal” unless you and your audience know exactly what you’re talking about. Most medieval historians have already thrown those words out as useless. Find a different word. Try “fief-holding” or “noble” or “medieval.” Say what you mean without making reference to an already confused concept with horribly negative connotations.
Bouchard, Constance Brittain. Strong of Body, Brave & Noble: Chivalry & Society in Medieval France. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.
Barendse, R. J. "The Feudal Mutation: Military and Economic Transformations of the Ethnosphere in the Tenth to Fourteenth Centuries." Journal of World History 14.4 (2003): 503-529.
Morillo, Stephen. "A 'Feudal Mutation'? Conceptual Tools and Historical Patterns in World History." Journal of World History 14.4 (2003): 531-550.