The feudalism which flourished between eleventh and thirteenth centuries began to decline towards the close of the thirteenth century in France and Italy. However, in other parts of Europe it continued to thrive for some time and ultimately disappeared only by 1500 A.D. The main factors which contributed to the decline of feudalism were as follows:
Firstly, feudalism contained in itself the seeds of its destruction. As Henry Martin has observed, “Feudalism concealed in its bosom the weapons with which it would be itself one day smitten”. In course of time when the feudal lords began to assert themselves too much, the kings who headed the feudal hierarchy, thought of bringing them under control. In this task they received full support from the newly emerged middle classes and freemen who were not under the control of the lords.
The middle classes consisting of traders and businessmen provided the king with money with which they began to maintain independent armies. With the help of these armies they were able to bring the turbulent nobles under control. The discovery of gun-powder and weapons like cannons also greatly helped the kings to reduce the lords to .subjection and reduced their dependence on them.
Secondly, the liberation of the serfs due to enormous growth in trade and commence also greatly contributed to. The decline of feudalism. With the growth of trade and commerce a number of new cities and towns grew which provided new opportunities for work. The serfs got an opportunity to free themselves of the feudal lords by taking up work in the new towns. It may be observed that according to the existing feudal laws, a serf could become a freeman if he stayed away from the manor for more than one year.
Thirdly, the Crusades or the Holy wars also greatly contributed to the decline of the feudal system. As a result of these wars the Europeans learnt the use of gun-powder from the Muslims. The discovery of gunpowder greatly undermined the importance of the feudal castles. As a result it was no more possible for the feudal lords to take shelter in these castles and defy the authority of the king.
The Crusades also contributed to the decline of feudalism in another way. During the Crusade a large number of feudal lords lost their lives which gave a series set back to the feudal system. Some of the feudal lords who returned alive from the Crusades were forced to sell charter of liberties to towns which they once controlled. As a result a larger number of self attained freedom.
The Crusades contributed to the decline of feudalism in another way too. They opened up trade between Europe and cities of Constantinople and Alexandria. As a result, commerce and industry in Europe received a fillip and a number of important cities developed. The merchants and artisans residing in these cities wished to free themselves from the control of feudal over-lords.
Therefore, they either purchased freedom or obtained it by force. They secured the right of self-government and freedom from feudal dues and taxes. After freeing themselves from the control of the nobles, the cities began to maintain their own armed militia and constructed high turreted walls to protect themselves. Thus they succeeded in fully freeing themselves from the control of the feudal lords.
Fourthly, the scarcity of labour force in Europe as a result of Black Death (which took a heavy toll of life in Europe) enhanced the bargaining powers of the serfs and rendered feudal system weak.