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- The Rise of the Dutch Republic, Introduction II. - 1/12 -


[NOTE: There is a short list of bookmarks, or pointers, at the end of the file for those who may wish to sample the author's ideas before making an entire meal of them. D.W.]

MOTLEY'S HISTORY OF THE NETHERLANDS, PG EDITION, VOLUME 2.

THE RISE OF THE DUTCH REPUBLIC

JOHN LOTHROP MOTLEY, D.C.L., LL.D.

1855

HISTORICAL INTRODUCTION., Part 2.

VII.

Five centuries of isolation succeed. In the Netherlands, as throughout Europe, a thousand obscure and slender rills are slowly preparing the great stream of universal culture. Five dismal centuries of feudalism: during which period there is little talk of human right, little obedience to divine reason. Rights there are none, only forces; and, in brief, three great forces, gradually arising, developing themselves, acting upon each other, and upon the general movement of society.

The sword--the first, for a time the only force: the force of iron. The "land's master," having acquired the property in the territory and in the people who feed thereon, distributes to his subalterns, often but a shade beneath him in power, portions of his estate, getting the use of their faithful swords in return. Vavasours subdivide again to vassals, exchanging land and cattle, human or otherwise, against fealty, and so the iron chain of a military hierarchy, forged of mutually interdependent links, is stretched over each little province. Impregnable castles, here more numerous than in any other part of Christendom, dot the level surface of the country. Mail-clad knights, with their followers, encamp permanently upon the soil. The fortunate fable of divine right is invented to sanction the system; superstition and ignorance give currency to the delusion. Thus the grace of God, having conferred the property in a vast portion of Europe upon a certain idiot in France, makes him competent to sell large fragments of his estate, and to give a divine, and, therefore, most satisfactory title along with them. A great convenience to a man, who had neither power, wit, nor will to keep the property in his own hands. So the Dirks of Holland get a deed from Charles the Simple, and, although the grace of God does not prevent the royal grantor himself from dying a miserable, discrowned captive, the conveyance to Dirk is none the less hallowed by almighty fiat. So the Roberts and Guys, the Johns and Baldwins, become sovereigns in Hainault, Brabant, Flanders and other little districts, affecting supernatural sanction for the authority which their good swords have won and are ever ready to maintain. Thus organized, the force of iron asserts and exerts itself. Duke, count, seignor and vassal, knight and squire, master and man swarm and struggle amain. A wild, chaotic, sanguinary scene. Here, bishop and baron contend, centuries long, murdering human creatures by ten thousands for an acre or two of swampy pasture; there, doughty families, hugging old musty quarrels to their heart, buffet each other from generation to generation; thus they go on, raging and wrestling among themselves, with all the world, shrieking insane war-cries which no human soul ever understood--red caps and black, white hoods and grey, Hooks and Kabbeljaws, dealing destruction, building castles and burning them, tilting at tourneys, stealing bullocks, roasting Jews, robbing the highways, crusading--now upon Syrian sands against Paynim dogs, now in Frisian quagmires against Albigenses, Stedingers, and other heretics-- plunging about in blood and fire, repenting, at idle times, and paying their passage through, purgatory with large slices of ill-gotten gains placed in the ever-extended dead-hand of the Church; acting, on the whole, according to their kind, and so getting themselves civilized or exterminated, it matters little which. Thus they play their part, those energetic men-at-arms; and thus one great force, the force of iron, spins and expands itself, century after century, helping on, as it whirls, the great progress of society towards its goal, wherever that may be.

Another force--the force clerical--the power of clerks, arises; the might of educated mind measuring itself against brute violence; a force embodied, as often before, as priestcraft--the strength of priests: craft meaning, simply, strength, in our old mother-tongue. This great force, too, develops itself variously, being sometimes beneficent, sometimes malignant. Priesthood works out its task, age after age: now smoothing penitent death-beds, consecrating graves! feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, incarnating the Christian precepts, in an, age of rapine and homicide, doing a thousand deeds of love and charity among the obscure and forsaken--deeds of which there shall never be human chronicle, but a leaf or two, perhaps, in the recording angel's book; hiving precious honey from the few flowers of gentle, art which bloom upon a howling wilderness; holding up the light of science over a stormy sea; treasuring in convents and crypts the few fossils of antique learning which become visible, as the extinct Megatherium of an elder world reappears after the gothic deluge; and now, careering in helm and hauberk with the other ruffians, bandying blows in the thickest of the fight, blasting with bell, book, and candle its trembling enemies, while sovereigns, at the head of armies, grovel in the dust and offer abject submission for the kiss of peace; exercising the same conjury over ignorant baron and cowardly hind, making the fiction of apostolic authority to bind and loose, as prolific in acres as the other divine right to have and hold; thus the force of cultivated intellect, wielded by a chosen few and sanctioned by supernatural authority, becomes as potent as the sword.

A third force, developing itself more slowly, becomes even more potent than the rest: the power of gold. Even iron yields to the more ductile metal. The importance of municipalities, enriched by trade, begins to be felt. Commerce, the mother of Netherland freedom, and, eventually, its destroyer--even as in all human history the vivifying becomes afterwards the dissolving principle--commerce changes insensibly and miraculously the aspect of society. Clusters of hovels become towered cities; the green and gilded Hanse of commercial republicanism coils itself around the decaying trunk of feudal despotism. Cities leagued with cities throughout and beyond Christendom-empire within empire-bind themselves closer and closer in the electric chain of human sympathy and grow stronger and stronger by mutual support. Fishermen and river raftsmen become ocean adventurers and merchant princes. Commerce plucks up half- drowned Holland by the locks and pours gold into her lap. Gold wrests power from iron. Needy Flemish weavers become mighty manufacturers. Armies of workmen, fifty thousand strong, tramp through the swarming streets. Silk-makers, clothiers, brewers become the gossips of kings, lend their royal gossips vast sums and burn the royal notes of hand in fires of cinnamon wood. Wealth brings strength, strength confidence. Learning to handle cross-bow and dagger, the burghers fear less the baronial sword, finding that their own will cut as well, seeing that great armies--flowers of chivalry--can ride away before them fast enough at battles of spurs and other encounters. Sudden riches beget insolence, tumults, civic broils. Internecine quarrels, horrible tumults stain the streets with blood, but education lifts the citizens more and more out of the original slough. They learn to tremble as little at priestcraft as at swordcraft, having acquired something of each. Gold in the end, unsanctioned by right divine, weighs up the other forces, supernatural as they are. And so, struggling along their appointed path, making cloth, making money, making treaties with great kingdoms, making war by land and sea, ringing great bells, waving great banners, they, too--these insolent, boisterous burghers--accomplish their work. Thus, the mighty power of the purse develops itself and municipal liberty becomes a substantial fact. A fact, not a principle; for the old theorem of sovereignty remains undisputed as ever. Neither the nation, in mass, nor the citizens, in class, lay claim to human rights. All upper attributes--legislative, judicial, administrative--remain in the land- master's breast alone. It is an absurdity, therefore, to argue with Grotius concerning the unknown antiquity of the Batavian republic. The republic never existed at all till the sixteenth century, and was only born after long years of agony. The democratic instincts of the ancient German savages were to survive in the breasts of their cultivated descendants, but an organized, civilized, republican polity had never existed. The cities, as they grew in strength, never claimed the right to make the laws or to share in the government. As a matter of fact, they did make the laws, and shared, beside, in most important functions of sovereignty, in the treaty-making power, especially. Sometimes by bargains; sometimes by blood, by gold, threats, promises, or good hard blows they extorted their charters. Their codes, statutes, joyful entrances, and other constitutions were dictated by the burghers and sworn to by the monarch. They were concessions from above; privileges private laws; fragments indeed of a larger liberty, but vastly, better than the slavery for which they had been substituted; solid facts instead of empty abstractions, which, in those practical and violent days, would have yielded little nutriment; but they still rather sought to reconcile themselves, by a rough, clumsy fiction, with the hierarchy which they had invaded, than to overturn the system. Thus the cities, not regarding themselves as representatives or aggregations of the people, became fabulous personages, bodies without souls, corporations which had acquired vitality and strength enough to assert their existence. As persons, therefore--gigantic individualities--they wheeled into the feudal ranks and assumed feudal powers and responsibilities. The city of Dort; of Middelburg, of Ghent, of Louvain, was a living being, doing fealty, claiming service, bowing to its lord, struggling with its equals, trampling upon its slaves.

Thus, in these obscure provinces, as throughout Europe, in a thousand remote and isolated corners, civilization builds itself up, synthetically and slowly; yet at last, a whole is likely to get itself constructed. Thus, impelled by great and conflicting forces, now obliquely, now backward, now upward, yet, upon the whole, onward, the new Society moves along its predestined orbit, gathering consistency and strength as it goes. Society, civilization, perhaps, but hardly humanity. The people has hardly begun to extricate itself from the clods in which it lies buried. There are only nobles, priests, and, latterly, cities. In the northern Netherlands, the degraded condition of the mass continued longest. Even in Friesland, liberty, the dearest blessing of the ancient Frisians, had been forfeited in a variety of ways. Slavery was both voluntary and compulsory. Paupers sold themselves that they might escape starvation. The timid sold themselves that they might escape violence. These voluntary sales, which were frequent, wore usually made to cloisters and ecclesiastical establishments, for the condition of Church-slaves was preferable to that of other serfs. Persons worsted in judicial duels, shipwrecked sailors, vagrants, strangers, criminals unable to pay the money-bote imposed upon them, were all deprived of freedom; but the prolific source of slavery was war. Prisoners were almost universally reduced to servitude. A free woman who intermarried with a slave condemned herself and offspring to perpetual bondage. Among the Ripuarian Franks, a free woman thus disgracing herself, was girt with a sword and a distaff. Choosing the one, she was to strike her husband dead; choosing the other, she adopted the symbol of slavery, and became a chattel for life.

The ferocious inroads of the Normans scared many weak and timid persons into servitude. They fled, by throngs, to church and monastery, and were happy, by enslaving themselves, to escape the more terrible bondage of the sea-kings. During the brief dominion of the Norman Godfrey, every free Frisian was forced to wear a halter around his neck. The lot of a Church-slave was freedom in comparison. To kill him was punishable by a


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