The term feudalism is recent, first appearing in French in 1823, Italian in 1827, English in 1839, and in German in the second half of the nineteenth century. It derived from "feodal" which was used in seventeenth-century French legal treatises (1614) and translated into English legal treatises as "feodal government". In the 18th century Adam Smith popularized the forms "feudal government" and "feudal system" in his book Wealth of Nations (1776). In the 19th century the adjective "feudal" (i.e. "the feudal government") evolved into a noun: feudalism.
The term "feudal" or "feodal" is derived from the medieval Latin word feodum. The etymology of feodum is complex with multiple theories, some suggesting a Germanic origin (the most widely held view) and others suggesting an Arabic origin. Initially in medieval Latin European documents, a land grant in exchange for service was called a beneficium (Latin). Later, the term feudum, or feodum, began to replace beneficium in the documents. The first attested instance of this is from 984, although more primitive forms were seen up to one-hundred years earlier. The origin of the feudum and why it replaced beneficium has not been well established, but there are multiple theories, described below.
The most widely held theory is put forth by Marc Bloch. Bloch said it is related to the Frankish term *fehu-ôd, in which *fehu means "cattle" and -ôd means "goods", implying "a moveable object of value." When land replaced currency as the primary store of value, the Germanic word *fehu-ôd replaced the Latin word beneficium. This Germanic origin theory was also shared by William Stubbs in the nineteenth century.
Another theory was put forward by Archibald R. Lewis. Lewis said the origin of 'fief' is not feudum (or feodum), but rather foderum, the earliest attested used being in Astronomus's Vita Hludovici (840). In that text is a passage about Louis the Pious which says annona militaris quas vulgo foderum vocant, which can be translated as "Louis forbade that military provender (which they popularly call "fodder") be furnished.."
Another theory by Alauddin Samarrai suggests an Arabic origin, from fuyū (the plural of fay, which literally means "the returned", and was used especially for 'land that has been conquered from enemies that did not fight'). Samarrai's theory is that early forms of 'fief' include feo, feu, feuz, feuum and others, the plurality of forms strongly suggesting origins from a loanword. Indeed the first use of these terms is in Languedoc, one of the least Germanized areas of Europe and bordering Muslim Spain. Further, the earliest use of feuum (as a replacement for beneficium) can be dated to 899, the same year a Muslim base at Fraxinetum (La Garde-Freinet) in Provence was established. It is possible, Samarrai says, that French scribes, writing in Latin, attempted to transliterate the Arabic word fuyū (the plural of fay), which was being used by the Muslim invaders and occupiers at the time, resulting in a plurality of forms - feo, feu, feuz, feuum and others - from which eventually feudum derived. Samarrai, however, also advises to handle this theory with care, as Medieval and Early Modern Muslim scribes often used etymologically "fanciful roots" in order claim the most outlandish things to be of Arabian or Muslim origin.
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