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- Medieval Europe - 10/25 -

who render no account of the sums which they collect under the name of fines or dues, who are seldom educated to the point of realising that, even in their private interest, honesty is the best policy. If this system had developed to its logical conclusion, if the principles of feudal government had not been mitigated by revolt from below and interested tyranny from above, the only possible end would have been a state of particularism and anarchy compared with which the Germany of the fifteenth century, or the Italy of the eighteenth, might be called an earthly paradise.

The very defects of the feudal system are, however, the best proof that it was the natural and inevitable product of social evolution. A legal theory so complex, so repugnant to the best traditions both of Roman and barbarian government, could not have obtained general recognition, as part of the natural order of things, unless it had grown up by degrees, unless it had been the outcome of older usages and institutions. A form of social organisation so cumbrous and so dangerous could hardly have survived for centuries unless it had solved difficulties of unusual urgency and magnitude. Let us then consider, in their historical order, the antecedents of feudalism and the reasons of state by which it was justified.

Before the downfall of the Roman Empire the duties of local government were slipping from the grasp of the imperial executive. With or without official consent, the great proprietors--already held responsible for the taxes, the military service, and the good conduct of their dependents--were assuming rights of jurisdiction. When Gaul was reorganised by the Merovingians, these private courts of law continued to exist; and they were even legally recognised (by Clotaire II in 614) as institutions of public utility. A certain number of great estates were further protected by special charters of privilege (_immunitas_) which forbade public officials to enter them for the purposes of making arrests, of holding courts, of collecting fines and levying distraints. The owners were obliged to surrender any person accused of a grave crime, but otherwise did justice at their pleasure.

This system of immunity was greatly extended by the Carolingian sovereigns, but with two important changes. (1) Henceforward the privilege was seldom granted to laymen, but was bestowed as a matter of course on the estates of bishops and of religious houses. (2) The holders of such ecclesiastical estates were compelled to vest their powers of police and justice in the hands of laymen (_advocati_) chosen either by the central power or by some approved form of election. The intention of these changes was to use the private courts for the maintenance of public order, to extract the sting from a dangerous privilege, and to make it a serviceable instrument of royal policy. But only one half of the scheme was permanent. By the middle of the ninth century, when _immunitas_ had been granted to all religious foundations, the Carolingians allowed the right of choosing the _advocati_ to slip from their feeble grasp. The privileged estates remained, but the royal control over their internal government was gone. They became ecclesiastical seignories; whatever checks were imposed upon the power of their rulers came from the lay-nobles who were their neighbours, or from the subject population. Partly from respect for custom and tradition, partly from motives of self-interest, the great ecclesiastical landowners sided with the Crown, even in the tenth century, when the fortunes of royalty were at their lowest ebb. But for this support a price had to be paid; the old privileges were maintained and even augmented by grants of the power of life and death (_hautejustice, blut-bann_). Thus came into existence the class of ecclesiastical princes, who throughout the Middle Ages maintained a state, and wielded a power, comparable with that of any lay feudatory.

The ecclesiastical _immunitas_, as early as the ninth century, was in the eyes of all ambitious landowners the model of a privileged estate. But it was by another road that the layman arrived at the position of a petty sovereign. Speaking broadly, there are two stages in his progress. First, he comes into the position of a royal tenant, holding his lands in exchange for services and fealty. Secondly, he acquires, by delegation or usurpation, a greater or smaller part of the royal authority over his own dependents.

(1) The idea of a personal contract between the free warrior and his lord, by which the former places himself at the disposition of the latter and promises unlimited service, is one which occurs in many primitive societies and is peculiar to no one branch of the human race. Tacitus noticed, as one feature of German life in his time, the free war-band (_comitatus_) who lived in the house of their chief, followed him to battle, and thought it the last degree of infamy to return alive from the field on which he had fallen. The Merovingian kings maintained a bodyguard of this kind (_antrustions_). Under the Carolingians such followers appear in the host, in the royal household, in every branch of the administration. They are the most trusted agents of the King and possess considerable social consequence. They are called _vassi_, a name formerly applied to any kind of dependent, but now reserved for free men rendering free services to the King or some other lord, and subject to his jurisdiction. So valuableare these followers that, in the eighth and ninth centuries, the power of the great is largely measured by the number of _vassi_ whom they can put into the field.

Various considerations suggested to Frankish rulers and nobles the expediency of endowing these followers with land, and of granting land to no tenant unless he would take the vassal's oath. Usually land was the only form of pay which the lord could give; and it always served as a material guarantee of faithful service, since it could be resumed whenever the vassal made default. In days when law and morality availed little as the sanctions of contracts, the landlord naturally desired to bind his tenant to him by a personal obligation; and there were obvious advantages in providing that every tenant should be liable to aid his lord with arms. The estates granted to vassals were known as benefices (_beneficia_); they foreshadowed the lay-fief of later times. But there are some distinctions to be drawn. The benefice was not _de jure_ heritable; it escheated on the death of either lord or tenant. The service was not measured with the same precision as in later times. The military duties of the beneficed vassal were not different in kind or degree from those of the ordinary freemen. Finally, the idea had not yet arisen that vassals were superior in status to the rest of the community. The importance of the vassal depended entirely on his wealth and his rank in the King's employ. Only in the old age of the Carolingian Empire, when the class of free landowners, acknowledging no lord, had been almost ground out of existence by official oppression and the intolerable burden of military service, was the burden of national defence thrown entirely upon vassals. Then, as the sole military class in the community, they acquired the consideration which, in early stages of social development, is the monopoly of those who are trained to arms.

(2) It was natural that the tie of vassalage should be imposed on every important official; and natural also to regard his office as a benefice, tenable for life or during good behaviour. At an early date we find cases of conquered princes--a Duke of Aquitaine, a Duke of Bavaria, a King of Denmark--who take the vassal's oath and agree to hold their former dominions as a _beneficium_. So again a member of the royal house does homage and promises service in return for his appanage. More common, and more important for the future, is the practice of treating counts as vassals. All over the Frankish Empire the county was the normal unit of local administration. The count led the military levies, collected the royal dues, enforced the laws, maintained the peace, and was a judge with powers of life and death. The Carolingians controlled their counts by means of itinerant inspectors (_missi dominici_); but with the disruption of their Empire this check was destroyed, while the power of the count survived. By that time the office had often become hereditary, on the analogy of the _beneficium_, and the count appropriated to his own use the profits of his office. In such cases his county became a small principality, classed by lawyers as a fief, but often ruled without any reference to the interests of the royal overlord. The fiefs of Anjou, Champagne and Flanders began in this way as hereditary countships. Sometimes, again, we find that a great vassal obtains, by grant of usurpation, the prerogatives of a count over his own lands; examples are the prince-bishops of Trier (898 A.D.), Hamburg (937), and Metz (945).

The first effect of this striking change in the nature of landed property and of public office was to substitute for the centralised state of the Carolingians a lax federal system, in which each unit was a group of men attached to the person of a hereditary superior. This nascent feudalism was often brutal, always summary and short-sighted, in its methods of government. The feudal group was engaged in a perpetual struggle for existence with neighbouring groups. Feudal policy was aggressive; for every lord had his war-band, whom he could only hold together by providing them with adventure and rich plunder; nor could any lord regard himself as safe while a neighbour of equal resources remained unconquered. Furthermore, as though the disintegration of society had not gone far enough, every great fief was in constant danger of civil war and partition. As the lord had treated the King, so he in turn was treated by his vassals. He endowed them with lands, he allowed them to found families, he gave them positions of authority; and then they defied him. In the eleventh century the great fief bristled with castles held by chief vassals of the lord; in the small county of Maine alone we hear of thirty-five such strongholds; generally speaking they were centres of rebellion and indiscriminate rapine. Such feudalism was not a system of government; it was a symptom of anarchy.

Yet feudalism had not always been a mere tyranny of the military class over the unarmed population. Like the Roman Empire, that of the Franks had forfeited respect and popularity by misgovernment, by feeble government, by insupportable demands on the personal service of the subject. The land-owner was a less exacting master than the Empire; often he could defend his tenants from imperial exactions. During the invasions of the Northmen and Hungarians, he was impelled by his own interest to guard his estates to the best of his ability. Therefore common men looked to their landlord, or looked about them for a landlord, to whom they could commend themselves. The great estate was the ark of refuge from the general flood of social evils. In the eleventh century the situation changed. The Hungarian tide of invasion was rolled back by a Henry the Fowler and an Otto the Great; the Northmen enrolled themselves as members of the European commonwealth. The petty feudal despot was no longer needed. From a protector he had degenerated into a pest of society. The great political problem of the age was to make him innocuous. It was taken in hand, and it was settled, by a variety of means.

In France the Church took the lead of the repressive movement, endeavouring to mitigate the horrors of private war by certain restrictions upon the combatants. During the eleventh century it was not unusual for the bishop of a diocese to secure the co-operation of representative men, from all classes of society, in proclaiming a local Truce of God (_Treuga Dei_). This Truce, which all men were invited to swear that they would observe, forbade the molestation of ecclesiastics, peasants and other non-combatants; provided that cultivated land should not be harried or cattle carried off; and named certain seasons when no war should be waged. A typical agreement of this kind enjoins that all private hostilities shall be suspended from Wednesday evening to Monday morning in each week; from the beginning of Advent till a week after the Epiphany; from the beginning of Lent till a week after Easter; from the Rogation Days till a week after Pentecost. The Truce of God was approved by the Crown both in France and in Germany; even in the twelfth century it was still recommended by church councils as a useful expedient. But it was seldom effectual. There was no machinery for enforcing it; and those who swore to uphold it were so

Medieval Europe - 10/25

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