What The Middle Ages Started With
Addition Of Christianity
German Conquest And The Fall Of Rome
What The Germans Added
Formation Of The Papacy
The Franks And Charlemagne
The Empire And The Papacy
Read More Articles About: Medieval Civilization
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
OUT of the fragments of the Carolingian empire the modern nations were finally to arise. But there was in the meantime, as we have seen, a considerable period, after the fall of the old government, before any real national governments, at all corresponding to the mod-ern idea, came into existence. This is the period when the feudal system was the prevailing form of political organization.
In any detailed history of civilization it would be necessary to give much space to the feudal system, both because of the large field which it occupies in the middle ages, and also because it is one of the most influential of medieval institutions, the source of legal principles and social ideas, which are, even now, by no means obsolete.
The question of the origin of the feudal system is one of the most difficult in all institutional history, for one reason, because it took its rise in ages which have left us very scanty historical material, and for another, because it originated in the domain of extra-legal and private operations, and under the influence of forces which leave but slight traces of their working. Every important point in this history has been the subject of long and violent controversy, and is so still, though to a less ex-tent. It may be said that opinion is now practically united upon the main points, and that present differences concern minor points of detail, or the amount of emphasis which shall be placed upon certain facts.
Before entering upon the details of the origin of the feudal system, there is one general consideration which has an important bearing upon the study which should be made clear. It is necessary here, and in all institutional history, to distinguish very carefully between two sets of causes or antecedents. First, there is the general cause, or the prevailing condition of things in the society of the time, which renders a new institution necessary and, second, there is the old institution, on which the prevailing cause seizes, and which it transforms into a new one. Both these are always present. No institution ever starts into life wholly new. Every new institution has its foundation far in the past in some earlier one. The prevailing necessity transforms it into a new institution, but the character of the new creation is as much conditioned by the character of the old as it is by the new necessity which it is made to meet. The sneer which is sometimes heard against that sort of investigation which seeks the foundations of a new institution in those which have preceded it, as merely antiquarian, is proof only of a very narrow conception of history.
The application of this to the present case becomes clear enough when the problem before us is specifically stated. It is not to account for the rise of feudal forms in general, but to account for that peculiar feudal system, which arose in western Europe in the middle ages. It is undoubtedly true that institutions have existed in Japan, and in Central Africa, and in various Mohammedan states, almost everywhere, indeed, which are justly called feudal. It is true that under certain political conditions human nature turns, naturally as it would seem, to forms of government which are feudal. And it is necessary to take these political and social conditions into account in our study of the problem more fully than has been done, perhaps, by some merely institutional historians.' They are among the most essential causes at work. But when taken alone they merely account for the rise of feudal forms in general. They give us no reason for the fact that in institutional details these various feudal systems differ from one another in essential particulars. To explain this fact we must turn to the earlier institutional foundation on which the social forces built.
By " the feudal system," when used without qualification, we always mean the system of medieval western Europe, and in accounting for its origin we have two sets of facts to consider the condition of society which gave such forms an opportunity to develop, and the earlier institutions which were transformed by these social conditions into the historical feudal system, and which determined the form assumed by many of the special features of that system.
This historical feudal system came into existence in the eighth and ninth centuries, owing to the political disorders of the time, and the inability of the central government even of so strong a government as Charlemagne's to do its necessary work without some such help. It is itself a crude and barbarous form of government in which the political organization is based on the tenure of land ; that is, the public duties and obligations which ordinarily the citizen owes to the state, are turned into private and personal services which he owes to his lord in return for land which he has received from him. The state no longer depends upon its citizens, as citizens, for the fulfilment of public duties, but it depends upon a certain few to perform specified duties, which they owe as vassals of the king, and these in turn depend upon their vassals for services, which will enable them to meet their own obligations toward the king.
There are always present in this historical feudal system two elements very closely united together, but which are really distinct, and which must be kept apart from one another in mind if we are to understand the origin of the system. One of these relates wholly to land and the tenure by which it is held. This land element is the " benefice " or " fief." The other is the personal relation, the bond of mutual fidelity and protection which binds together the grades in the feudal hierarchy. This personal element is the relation of lord and vassal. In the ideal feudal system these two are always united, the vas-sal always receives a fief, the fief is always held by a vassal. In practice they were sometimes separated, and in some countries such a separation was recognized by the feudal law.
There are, then, these two specific questions concerning the origin of the feudal system : How did these two institutions, vassalage and the benefice, come into existence and become united ; and how did public duties, for ex-ample military service, get attached to them, and become changed in this way into private services which one paid as a form of land rent ?
When we come to trace the origin of these two institutions we find that we are carried back to the time of political insecurity when the Roman empire was falling to pieces, just before and at the moment of the German invasions. Then began the conditions which called these institutions into existence, and which, continuing in the main unchanged through the whole period, transformed them into the perfected feudal system.
As the real power which the Roman emperor had at his command declined, his ability to protect the citizens and preserve order in the outlying provinces became less and less. The peace and security which Rome had formerly established could no longer be maintained, and the provinces fell a prey to various disorders. Usurping emperors, peasants in insurrection, revolted troops, bands of invading Germans, marauders of all sorts appeared everywhere, and the state could not hold them in check.
But the individual must obtain protection at some price. If he owns land, he will need protection in order to cultivate it and enjoy the returns; if he has no land, he will still need protection for his life and his means of livelihood. If he cannot get it from the state, he must seek it where he can find it. In such political conditions there always arises a class of men strong enough from wealth or position or abilities to give some degree of protection to weaker men. The weaker men take refuge with the stronger and increase their power, which thus grows into a little semi-detached fragment of the state, and the germ of the feudal system has come into existence.
In the later Roman empire, under the influence of these conditions, two practices arose which we need to notice. One of them related to land, the other to persons owning no land. In the case of the first the small land-owner, long at an economic disadvantage, and now, in the midst of the crowding evils of the time, threatened with total destruction, gave up his land to some large landowner near him, whose position was strong enough to command or compel respect from vagrant enemies, and received it back from him to cultivate, no longer as owner, but as a tenant at will.
As the form of tenure in such cases a peculiar kind of lease, which had been known to the Roman law as the precarium, received a very great extension in practice. Under this form the owner granted the use of a piece of property to another, without rent and with no period of time specified, but revocable at the will of the owner.' This was the kind of tenure by which the small land-holder held and cultivated the land which he had been obliged to surrender to some strong man for fear of losing it entirely. He lost the ownership of it ; he held it only so long as his lord might please, but his actual condition was much improved. In the growing scarcity of laborers he was not likely to be disturbed in his tenure, and he had now an armed force which could be depended on to keep off all marauders not actually armies, and he had a right to take refuge in his lord's fortress on some not distant hilltop when a more serious invasion threatened.
The other practice was adopted to meet the case of the freeman who owned no land, and it gave rise to an institution closely resembling the clientel which Caesar describes as prevailing in Gaul at the time of his con-quest, and not unlike the earlier Roman institution of patron and client. The dependent is often called a client in the language of the time, and the institution itself the patrocinium.
In a case of this sort the poor freeman goes to the rich and strong man who can afford him protection, and explaining that he can no longer care for or support him-self, begs to be taken under his protection and furnished with shelter and support.' The rich man grants the petition, adds the client to his household, and expects from him, in return, such services as a freeman may perform. There seems to have been no specified services, nor peculiar duty of fidelity in this arrangement, but its obligations were probably clearly enough defined in the customary law which all understood.
In this way many local magnates of the age of the invasion collected about them considerable forces, composed also partly of armed slaves and serfs, and so added greatly to their own power, and furnished the locality with some degree of security. In some instances, both in the East and in the West, we know that such private forces amounted to respectable armies and served to protect extensive territories, or even to turn the march of an invading tribe.
It is important to notice that, in the case of the freeman entering into either of these relations, the personal one or the one relating to land, there was no loss of political status or personal freedom. The dependent, under the new arrangement, remained, in either relation, exactly what he had been before, both in reference to his duties to the government and his personal rights.
It was of course true, as the history of the Roman tax system makes evident, that the rich man might be so strong in his district that he could refuse to meet his obligations toward the government, and set the local officers at defiance, and so be able to protect from the burdens of the state the poorer men who became his clients and dependents. This was no doubt one reason for the rapid extension of these practices. But if he did this, it was an illegal usurpation, not a recognized change in the status or duties of his dependents. That such results did follow is clear enough from the attitude of the state toward these practices, which it pronounced illegal and forbade under the heaviest penalties. But it was powerless to interfere, and even the death penalty had no effect to check them. Indeed, if the state had been strong enough to stop them, it would have been strong enough to have preserved such general security that no necessity for such customs would ever have arisen.
The results, as seen at the time of the invasions, have many features in common with the later feudal system, and it is right, in the sense mentioned at the beginning of the chapter, to speak of them as feudal, but they are still very far from being the historical feudal system.
In the first place, the characteristic feature of the later feudalism was lacking. These two practices remained entirely distinct from one another. They were not yet united into a single institution. The personal relation, or clientage, did not imply at all the reception of land, and holding land by the precariurn tenure involved no obligation of service.
In the second place, there was no common organization, either expressed or implied, as there was in the completed feudal system, between the various local powers which had been formed. They were merely private and wholly separate fragments into which the state had fallen. In other words, there was not enough connection between them, taken alone, to have preserved the state, as a state, through a period of political chaos, but they would have produced a thousand little local states wholly independent and sovereign.
In the third place, the state regarded these institutions not merely as unconstitutional and improper for itself, but also as illegal and improper for private citizens. The local potentate might actually have usurped, as we know he did, many of the functions of the state, judicial as well as military, and have excluded practically the state from his whole territory and taken its place himself, but this was a usurpation and strictly forbidden by the laws. In the later feudal system the similar practices are not merely recognized by the government as legal, but they are even, in some cases, enjoined as duties, and become, practically at least, the very constitution of the state, so that in many cases the sovereignty exercised by the feudal baron over his territory was the only sovereignty exercised by the state.
The Franks, when they entered Gaul, found these customs prevailing there, as in all the provinces of the empire. They dealt with them, as they did with many Roman institutions which they found, they allowed them to continue in use and they adopted them themselves. It was under the conditions which prevailed in the Frankish kingdom, and by means of the legal expedients adopted by the Frankish kings, that these primitive beginnings were developed into the feudal system of Europe.
The conquest was indeed a most serious crisis in the history of feudalism. Had they been disposed to do so, the Frankish kings would doubtless have found it easier than the Roman emperors had done, to crush out these institutions, still in a formative condition, and to establish a centralization, if not more complete in theory, certainly more so in fact. The government which they did found had many of the features of an absolutism in-compatible with the continued growth of these institutions. If they had destroyed them, and entirely pre-vented their further growth, their government would have escaped its most dangerous enemy of the future the one to which it was finally compelled to surrender. But the more simple political mind of the Frank could not perceive this danger so clearly as the Roman did, and an-other fact was an even more decisive influence against any change. The Franks themselves had institutions and practices which were so similar to those of the Romans that it was the most natural thing imaginable for them to adopt these, and to regard them at once, as they had never before been regarded, as perfectly legal, because the corresponding German institutions were.
The German customs and the Roman customs ran rapidly together into a common practice, and the German variations from the Roman added very essential elements of their own to the common product, so that the feudal system presents one of the clearest cases that we have of the union of the German and the Roman factors together to form the new institution.
The most striking of these German institutions was the cornitatus, which we have briefly described in the chapter on the German invasions. The old theory of its relation to the origin of feudalism is now abandoned, but its place has been taken by a clear recognition of the very important contribution which it made to the final result. It was an institution corresponding very closely to the Roman client system which we have de-scribed above. It was a purely personal relationship of mutual protection, service, and support, between a chief and certain men, usually young men of the tribe, voluntarily entered into on both sides. But it had certain distinctive features of its own, which are lacking in the Roman institution, but characteristic of the later feudalism. It was not regarded by the Germans as a mere business transaction of give and take, but was looked upon as conferring especial honor on lord and man alike. It was entered upon by a special ceremonial, and sanctioned by a solemn oath, and the bond of personal fidelity established by it was considered to be of the most sacred and binding character. All these ideas and customs passed from the cornitatus into the feudal system.
The Roman practices in this matter, which the Franks found in Gaul, seemed to them, therefore, very natural and proper, and they adopted them at once, and it seems evident, as the Franks became settled upon the land and the members of the original royal comitatus came to have private interests and landed possessions which made it difficult for them to fulfil the duties of the old relation, or to be used for its purposes, that their place was taken by persons who had entered into a personal relation to the king, corresponding, both in motive and in form, rather to the Roman patrocinium than to the German comitatus.1 So that the institution which survived in the new state was the Roman rather than the German, which must necessarily have disappeared in the decidedly changed conditions of the national life, but it was the Roman essentially modified by ideas and usages from the German.
It was some little time after the conquest, so far as the documents allow us to judge, before the word vassus began to be employed for the man in this personal relation. Originally applied to servants not free, it came into gradual use for the free clients, and acquired a distinctly honorable meaning in somewhat the same way as the English word knight.
In reference to the land relationship, which we have described, it has been conclusively shown lately, in opposition to earlier theories, that the German kings, following native German ideas, did probably from the be-ginning make donations of land, which carried only a limited right of ownership, and which fell back in certain contingencies to the donor.' Such practices would make it easy for the Franks to understand and adopt the Roman practice of the precarium, and it appears to have been so adopted, quite extensively, by German private landowners who found themselves in a similar position to the Roman, and to have been continued also as before, by Roman subjects of the Frankish state. But still, to all appearances, it was not adopted in any really important way by the kings, until the beginning of the Carolingian period, and the chief agent in carrying over the precarice, as the word came to be written, from the Roman to the German state, seems to have been the church.
The church appears to have used this tenure very extensively under the empire, both as a means of increasing its territories the donor retaining the use of his grant for life and also as a convenient way of bestowing upon persons, whose support or favor it desired to se-cure, lands which it could not alienate. It seems to have introduced a small rent-charge, as a sign of ownership, and to have tended to limit such grants to a specified time, commonly five years, or the life-time of the recipient. These practices it continued in very frequent use under the Frankish kingdom.
Through the Merovingian period of Frankish history, therefore, these institutions remained in very much the same shape in which they were under the empire, except that they were not now regarded as illegal. It is in the Carolingian period that they took the next great steps in their development the steps that were essentially necessary to the formation of the historical feudal system. They then became united as the two sides of a single institution, and they were adopted by the government as a means of securing the performance of their public duties by the subjects of the state. The simplest example of this process is the transformation of the citizen army into a feudal army, and this gives us also, in its main features, the history of the joining together of the benefice and vassalage.
Originally neither of these primitive Roman institutions had, as it would seem, any especially military character. And this is, with an insignificant modification, as true of the Merovingian as of the Roman period. In such troubled times, however, as those which brought these institutions into use, military service would certainly be one of the most frequent services needed from the dependent, and apparently some of them at least were constantly employed as an armed force, but there was, during the earlier period, no necessary connection of this military service with these relationships either of person or of land. The first beginnings of this connection were made at the opening of the Carolingian age under Charles Martel; the completion of it the establishment of military service as the almost indispensable rule in feudalism was hardly accomplished before the period ends.
The occasion which led to the beginning of this change was the Arabian attack on Gaul, and the necessity of forming a cavalry force to meet it.' Originally the Franks had fought on foot. But the Arabs were on horseback, and their sudden raids, which continued in south Gaul long after the battle of Tours, could not be properly met, and the defeated enemy properly pursued without the use of horse. But this was putting a heavy burden of expense on the citizen, who armed and sup-ported himself, and who was already severely oppressed by the conditions of the service. The state must aid him to bear it. This it could do only by grants of land.
The first Carolingian princes had, however, but scanty resources in this direction. The royal domains had been exhausted under the Merovingian kings. Their own house possessions, though very extensive, would not go far toward meeting the needs of a family, gradually usurping the royal power, and so in need of means to purchase faithful support. They lay, besides, in Austrasia, at a distance from the country which was in especial need of defence. There was in the case but one resource open the extensive lands of the church, amounting, in some parts of the kingdom, to one-third of the territory.
It had long been the custom for the state to make use of church lands, a bit here and there, to meet some special need ; but now, in the face of this great necessity, there was, seemingly, a more extensive confiscation, for which Charles Martel secured an evil place in the memory of the church. It was not, however, a confiscation in form, and his successors succeeded in making a definite arrangement with the church, regulating and sanctioning, in a limited way, this use of church lands.
The precarice furnished a convenient tenure for the purpose. By it the ownership of the church was, in form, preserved by the payment of a small fee, while the use of the land passed to the appointee of the king. These grants became technically known in the church records as precarice verbo regis, grants at the royal command.
As the object was to maintain a cavalry force, the prince bestowed these grants of land upon his vassals who were bound to .him by a personal bond of especial fidelity and service, and who were to be enabled, by the additional income secured them by the grant, to furnish mounted soldiers to the army. They divided the land among their own vassals in the same way, and at this time the word " benefice " came into gradual use for the land granted.
In this way the first steps were taken toward uniting these two institutions into a single one, and toward introducing the special obligation of military service as a condition on which the land was held. But it must not be understood that the process was by any means completed as yet. It was a very slow and a very gradual change, extending throughout the whole Carolingian period.
The efforts which were made by Charlemagne to reform, or rather to enforce, the military system of the kingdom, had a very important influence in the same direction. With the growth in size of the Frankish empire, requiring campaigns at such great distances and almost constantly, their original military system of unpaid service from all the freemen, which was common to all the German tribes, had come to be a serious burden upon the Franks. Indeed, the poorer citizens, who could no longer bear it, were striving to escape from it in every possible way, and the armies threatened to disappear. This danger Charlemagne tried to overcome by a series of enactments. He allowed several of the poorer free-men to unite in arming and maintaining one of their number in the army. He directed that vassals of private individuals must perform military service as the vassals of the king did, thus trying to hold to their duty those who had sought to escape from it by such an arrangement. He also ordained that the lord should be held responsible for the equipment and appearance in the field of his vassals, or should pay .the fine for their failure to appear. Finally, when these proved of no avail, he issued an ordinance which apparently brought a great principle of human nature to his aid by allowing the vassals to come into the field under the command of their lords instead of with the general levy of the country under the count. The natural desire of the lord for influence and consideration would make him wish to appear at the head of as large and fine a body of vassals as possible, and the expedient seems to have proved successful enough to be adopted regularly in the generations following. But the result of it was to make the army more and more completely a feudal army, and though it seems certain that the freemen, who remained throughout the whole feudal period holders of land and free laborers in considerable numbers outside the feudal system, were never excused from military duty, and were summoned occasionally to actual service, still the state in the main depended no longer upon citizens for its army, but upon vassals who served as a duty growing out of their holding of land.
In this way one important duty of the citizen, that of defending the community, was transformed from a public obligation into a matter of private contract, and became one of the ordinary conditions upon which lands were held.
A like transformation took place during this same time in regard to other functions of the state the judicial, for example which also passed into the hands of private individuals and became attached to the land. In this way the great fiefs came to possess what the French feudal law called "justice "—j urisdictio--that is, full sovereignty, so that the state was practically excluded from all contact with any persons residing within the limits of the fief. The process by which this transformation was accomplished, in respect to the other functions of the state, is by no means so clear as it is in the case of the military. In the instance, for example, of the judicial power of the state, there is probably no subject connected with the origin of the feudal system which is still the subject of so much controversy, and on which so many varying views are still maintained, as upon the way in which this power passed into private hands.
The process was undoubtedly largely aided by the " immunities." These were grants of privilege to churches or to private individuals, by virtue of which the ordinary officers of the state were forbidden all entry upon the specified domain, and the owner took the place of the officers in reference to the state.' This did not at once remove these estates from the control of the government. The landowner became independent of the ordinary officers, but not of the state, whose officer he became for his own land, though often possessing, instead of the state, the entire judicial revenue, but it did undoubtedly favor the development of private jurisdiction and virtual independence, and probably in many cases fully accounts for the sovereignty of the fief. The government, which found it so difficult during this time to control its own officers and to keep the functions of the state in operation by their means, would often find it entirely impossible to prevent the great landowner who had received a grant of immunity from throwing off all dependence upon the government and setting up a state of his own.
In the case of many fiefs, however, no immunity existed, and the process must have been a different one. Our knowledge of the actual process is so slight that almost every one of the various theories which have been advanced to explain it has some reasonable foundation, but the one which seems probable for the majority of cases is that of Beaudouin, who maintains that it was, in reality, a usurpation.'
The holder of the fief was locally strong. He could and did maintain some real degree of order and security. It was by virtue of this fact that his power had been developed and continued to be obeyed. In theory the state was absolute. It was supposed to control almost every detail of life. And this theory of the power of the state continued to exist and to be recognized in the days of the most complete feudalism. But actually the state could do nothing. Its real power was at the opposite extreme from its theoretical. The great difficulty of intercommunication rendered it impossible for the state to bring its power into direct contact with all parts of the country. It had no strong and organized body of officers on whom it could depend. Every officer, military or administrative, was a local magnate doing his best to throw off the control of the state, and using his official position to aid him in this purpose. There was no strong feeling of unity among the people which it could call to its aid. There were no common feelings or ideas or interests which bound the dweller at the mouth of the Loire to the dweller at the mouth of the Seine. Patriotism and a common national feeling were wanting. Everything was local and personal. Even in the church was this the case in the tenth century, Europe at large hardly knowing who was pope in Rome, and the common organization almost falling to pieces, while in Rome itself the papacy sank to its lowest point of degradation, a prey to local faction and made to serve local interests. If this were true of the church, much more was it true of the state, which had no such general organization and no such basis of common feelings. The sovereign of the moment had only such an amount of power as he might derive from lands directly in his hands, that is, from his own local fief. The great advantage which the first Capetians had over their Carolingian rivals was, as we have seen, that they had a very strong local power of this sort, while the Carolingians had really none ; but even this power which the first Capetians had was not enough to enable them to exercise the functions of a real government within the other large fiefs. Certainly there was no such power in the hands of the later Carolingians. These functions, which the government was powerless to exercise, fell naturally into the hands of the local magnate and were exercised by him.
Sometimes it was a real usurpation, the baron assuming and continuing offices which the state should have discharged. More often, no doubt, it was a transformation of duties which the state had once lodged in his hands, as an immunity, perhaps, or in making him its own administrative officer, duke or count, a transformation of such a sort that the baron no longer performed these, as a representative of the state, but by virtue of his own property right, and the persons living within his domain, fulfilled these duties, no longer as obligations due to the state, but as personal duties due to their immediate lord. Among these there would usually be vassals of his whose ancestors had dwelt in the county when his ancestors were counts by the king's appointment, and really represented the government. In those days they had attended the count's court as citizens discharging a public duty. In every intervening generation the same court had been held and attended, undergoing no pronounced change at any one time. But in the end it had been entirely transformed, and in attending it now the descendants of the earlier citizens were meeting a private obligation into which they had entered as vassals of a lord.
The local public court, no doubt, in being thus transformed into a feudal court, by the usurpation of the baron or by the grant of the king, retained its fundamental principles unchanged. The vassals came together to form the court, as formerly the citizens had done, accompanied by such free citizens of the district as might still remain outside the vassal relations. They pronounced judgment in cases concerning one another by common consent, the verdict of " peers," and they adopted, by general agreement, measures of the character of local legislation, as the older local assembly had done whose place they had taken. But, in relation to the public authority of the state, the transformation was a great one, and the whole point of view had been changed.
The geographical extent of territory, subject in this way to the lord's " justice," would depend upon a great variety of circumstances largely peculiar to each case ; certainly it depended, only in the most remote way, upon any act of the nominal sovereign's. The most decisive of these circumstances would be the personal ability of the successive generations of lords, their success in pre-serving some considerable amount of order and security, and making their government really respected over a larger or smaller area, and their success in compelling outlying landholders of less strength to recognize their supremacy. If they were good organizers and strong fighters, especially the last, their lands were constantly enlarging, until they reached the boundaries of other territories which had been formed in the same way. If they were undecided and weak, their subjects and their rivals took speedy advantage of it. Vassals lost no opportunity to throw off their dependence and assume for themselves the rights of sovereignty, and neighboring great barons did not hesitate to entice or to force a rival's vassals to change their allegiance, and thus to enlarge their own lands at their rival's expense. When the feudal system and the feudal law became more definitely fixed, these things became less frequent, but they never entirely ceased, and the days of formative feudalism were times when the law of the survival of the fittest reigned supreme.
As the starting-point of such a feudal territory there was often, not a fief, but an estate of allodial land, that is, land which the original owner had held in fee-simple and not as a benefice from some lord. There was always present in feudal times, also, a strong tendency to turn benefices into allodial land, that is, for the vassal to throw off all semblance of dependence upon his lord, and become independent, acknowledging in many cases not even a theoretical dependence upon anyone, the state it-self included. Such allodial lands, of whatever origin, might be just as thoroughly feudal as any other, and, if large enough, always were, that is, they were subdivided among vassals, and governed and regulated according to feudal principles, but the feudal law generally recognized their independence of outside control. Examples of such lands are those which the German feudal law styled " sun fiefs," fiefs held of the sun, and, in France, those of a part of the counts and others who styled themselves " counts by the grace of God." In many cases pretensions of this sort were not made good against the growing strength of the government ; in others they were, and the little states were distinctly recognized by the general government as independent sovereignties. The little kingdom of Yvetot, whose memory has been preserved in literature, is the case of a fief which became independent, and the little territory of Boisbelle-Henrichemont, in central France, maintained a recognized independence until 1766, when the last seigneur sold his state to the king.
In general, from the tenth to the beginning at least of the thirteenth century, the political aspect of western Europe was thoroughly feudal, and even in those parts of the country where allodial lands largely predominated, as, for example, in central France, the state was as weak as elsewhere, and the real government as completely local. The small allodial proprietor, not strong enough to usurp for himself the right of "justice," was subject to the "justice" of the feudal lord of the locality, and sometimes even to the payment of dues that were distinctly feudal, though he might not be forced into the position of a full vassal.
We have endeavored to present in this sketch, as fully as possible in the space at our command, the rise of the feudal system. Comparatively insignificant practices, of private and illegal origin, which had arisen in the later Roman empire, and which were continued in the early Frankish kingdom, had been developed, under the pressure of public need, into a great political organization extending over the whole West, and virtually supplanting the national government. The public need which had made this development necessary was the need of security and protection. Men had been obliged to take refuge in the feudal castle, because the power of the state had broken down. This break-down of the state, its failure to discharge its ordinary functions, was not so much due to a lack of personal ability on the part of the king, as to the circumstances of the time, and to the inability of the ruling race as a whole to rise above them. The difficulty of intercommunication, the break-down of the old military and judicial organization, partly on ac-count of this difficulty, thus depriving the state of its two hands, the lack of general ideas and common feelings and interests, seen for example in the scanty commerce of the time, the almost total absence, in a word, of all the sources from which every government must draw its life and strength, this general condition of society was the controlling force which created the feudal system. The Germans, in succeeding to the empire of Rome, had inherited a task which was as yet too great for the most of them, Merovingian and Carolingian alike. Only by a long process of experience and education were they to succeed in understanding its problems and mastering its difficulties. This is only saying in a new form what we have before said in other connections, that the coming in of the Germans must of necessity have been followed by a temporary decline of civilization. This was just as true of government and political order as of everything else, and the feudal system is merely, in politics, what the miracle lives and scholasticism are in literature and science.
These last paragraphs have, perhaps, given some idea of the condition of things in the completely feudalized state, and of the character of feudalism as a political organization.
The perfected form which the lawyers finally gave to the feudal theory as a matter of land law' and of social rank is undoubtedly the source of the popular idea that the feudal system was a much more definitely arranged and systematized organization than it ever was in practice. Among us Blackstone's Commentaries are probably, more than any other single source, responsible for this impression, as they are for other ideas of history which are not altogether correct. He says, speaking of the introduction of feudalism as a result of the Norman conquest :
" This new polity therefore seems not to have been imposed by the conqueror, but nationally and freely adopted by the general assembly of the whole realm, in the saine manner as other nations of Europe had before adopted it, upon the same principle of self-security, and, in particular, they had the recent example of the French nation before their eyes, which had gradually surrendered up all its allodial or free lands into the king's hands, who restored them to the owners as a beneficium or feud, to be held to them and such of their heirs as they previously nominated to the king, and thus by degrees all the allodial estates in France were converted into feuds, and the freemen became the vassals of the crown. The only difference between this change of tenure in France and that in England, was, that the former was effected gradually, by the consent of private persons ; the latter was done all at once, all over England, by the common con-sent of the nation."
It is needless to say that no such facts as these ever occurred, either in France or in England, but the lawyers certainly did form such a theory as this of the feudal state, and from its influence came the popular notion of what sort of an organization the feudal state was.
According to this theory the king is vested with the ownership of all the soil of the kingdom. But, like the private owner of a vast estate, he cannot cultivate it all under his own immediate direction. On the other hand, he has certain great expenses to meet, and public functions to perform, by virtue of his position as the head of the state. He must provide for defence against the national enemies, he must determine and enforce the laws, provide a currency, maintain the highways, and so on. The resources to enable him to meet these obligations must be derived from the land of the kingdom which he owns. Accordingly he parcels out the kingdom into a certain number of large divisions, each of which he grants to a single man, who gives a peculiarly binding promise to assume a certain specified portion of these public obligations in return for the land which is granted him. So long as he fulfils these duties he continues to hold the lands, and his heirs after him on the same terms. If he refuses to meet his obligations, or neglects them, the king may resume his lands and grant them to some more faithful vassal. Together, these men constitute the great barons, or grand feudatories, or peers of the kingdom, and by their united services the state gets its business performed.
In the same way these great barons divide their land among vassals, whose united services enable them to meet their obligations to the king. These vassals sub-divide again, by a like process of " subinfeudation," and so on down to the knight's fee, or lowest subdivision of the feudal system a piece of land large enough to sup-port and arm a single warrior of noble condition.
There is, undoubtedly, a general correspondence of this theory to the actual facts which prevailed from the tenth century on. Public duties were almost wholly transformed into private services. The state did depend, to a very large extent, upon the holders of land for the performance of its functions. The land of the kingdom did tend to become feudal, held by vassals upon a tenure of service, and there was a tendency in the feudal system to develop into a hierarchical organization of regulated grades, from the king down to the smallest noble.
But not one of these tendencies was completely realized in the actual feudalism of any country of Europe, and there never was anywhere such a regular organization as the theory supposes. It is perfectly easy to see, from the way in which the feudal system came into existence, its long and slow growth by private arrangements to meet local needs, that it could have no settled and uniform constitution, even for its general features, and for minor details it could have no general system of law with fixed rules which prevailed everywhere.
Its law must be purely customary law, formed by each locality for itself, its rules determined by the local customs and usages which had grown into precedents. It was not the result of general legislation, indeed it may be said without much exaggeration that, during the feudal period proper there was no such thing as legislation of any sort. We have, therefore, no general feudal law, but we have a thousand local systems of law, having certain general features alike, but differing more or less widely from one another on matters of detail. Even such general codes as the Assises de Jérusalem or the Libri Feudo-rum are not merely now and then at variance with one another on important points, but they are in many respects theoretical treatises, embodying an ideal law rather than stating practices which were widely in use. The general use into which some of these codes came in the hands of the lawyers, after there began to be professional lawyers, tended to create a uniformity of practice which had not existed earlier ; but this was only from the thirteenth century on, when in most countries feudalism was losing its political significance and was passing into a mere system of land law and of social rank.
In the days when feudalism was at its height as a political organization, the way in which the lord's court settled a particular question, or in which private agreement regulated a particular service, was final, and the custom thus formed in the locality became the law for that locality. These decisions and regulations might, and did, differ greatly in different places. Says Beaumanoir, one of the thirteenth-century lawyers, whose Coutume de Beauvoisis became one of the law-books in general use : " There are not two castellanies in France which use the same law in every case."2 Indeed, it is hardly too much to say that there was no uniformity of practice even in the most general features of the system.
There was nowhere any series of great baronies which covered the area of a kingdom.' The lands held by the so-called twelve peers by no means made up the whole of France. Some fiefs, not ranked among these, were as large or larger, like the county of Anjou or the county of Brittany. Some of the peers held only a portion of their land of the king. The count of Champagne was the king's vassal for only a fraction of his lands. His great territory was a complex, brought together into a single hand, and held of nine suzerains besides the king, of seven ecclesiastical lords, the German emperor, and the duke of Burgundy. The king granted fiefs of every size, and had vassals of every rank and title, and many subvassals of others held small fiefs directly from the king. In Germany the number of very small fiefs held immediately of the emperor was great. Suzerains also, even kings and emperors, held fiefs of their own vassals. The same homage, for the same fief, might be paid to two lords at the same time, or a fief might be held by two or more vassals. Not merely land, but all sorts of things having any value offices, tolls, and privileges were made into fiefs, and the variations of form and character in fiefs were almost infinite. And yet large portions of the land in every kingdom remained allodial, and were never held under any actual feudal tenure.
Gradations of rank in the nobility came to be regular and definite in later times, but they were not so when feudalism was supreme, and the size or importance of the fief had but little to do with its title and rank. Viscounts had counts as vassals. Some mere lordships were as large as the fiefs held by counts, and for a fief to change its title, while remaining the same itself, was of very frequent occurrence, as in the case of the county of Brittany which became a duchy.
In general, we may say that the feudal system was confusion roughly organized, and it would be impossible within these limits, even if our plan permitted, to give any satisfactory idea of its details. It is doubtful if it would be possible, within any reasonable limits, to give a detailed account of feudal usages which would not convey a wrong impression, or which would be true of more than limited regions.
Besides these differences of detail, the national feudal systems, which took shape in the different countries of Europe, differed more or less widely from one another in many points of general constitution. The history of feudalism runs a different course in the various states, and the permanent influence which it exercised on national institutions and history is distinct for each, as will be evident when the formation of the modern nations is reached.
It is evident that a system of this sort would be a serious obstacle in the reconstruction of a strong and consolidated state. It is a fact still more familiar to us that the legal and social privileges, the shadow of a once dominant feudalism, which the state allowed to remain or was forced to tolerate, secured for it a universal popular hatred and condemnation. But these facts ought not to obscure for us the great work which fell to the share of feudalism in the general development of civilization. The preceding account should have given some indication, at least, of what this work was. The feudal castle, torn to pieces by the infuriated mob of revolted peasants, as the shelter of tyrannous privileges, was originally built by the willing and anxious labor of their ancestors as their only refuge from worse evils than the lord's oppression.
We have seen, earlier, the great danger which threatened the political unity which Rome had established in the West in consequence of the German invasions; how they threatened to break up the Western Empire into separate and unconnected fragments ; and how the influence of the church and of the idea of Rome availed to keep up some general consciousness of unity, and of a common whole to which they all belonged. But these influences, however strong in maintaining an ideal union of states, could hardly be of much value within the bounds of the separate states. The same causes of separation, however, were at work there. There were so few common bonds between them that it was as hard for the inhabitants of the different parts of Gaul to keep alive any real feeling of national unity, as it was for them to realize any common relationship with the men of Italy. As the central governments of the different states succumbed more and more to the difficulties of their situation, and became more and more powerless to exercise any actual control at a distance from the court, the danger was great and real that the state would fall apart into little fragments owning no common allegiance, and that the advanced political organization which civilization had reached would dissolve again into the original elements from which it had formerly been constructed that Gaul, for example, would revert to the condition from which the Romans had rescued it. From this danger Europe was saved by the feudal system.
Feudalism is a form of political organization which allows the state to separate into as minute fragments as it will, virtually independent of one another and of the state, without the total destruction of its own life with which such an experience would seem to threaten every general government.
When we look at the actual condition of things in a feudal state, its anarchy and confusion, we can hardly see how it would be possible for disintegration to go further, or the destruction of the government of the state to be more complete. And yet there is an enormous difference between a society which has thrown off all common bonds, and actually broken into fragments that are wholly isolated, and another in which, however fragmentary in appearance, a lively and constantly recognized theory keeps in remembrance the rights aid prerogatives of the central government, and asserts without ceasing that there is a vital bond of union between all the fragments.
It was this that feudalism did. It was an arrangement suited to crude and barbarous times, by which an advanced political organization belonging to a more orderly civilization might be carried through such times without destruction, though unsuited to them, and likely to perish if left to its own resources. There is no intention of asserting in this proposition that such a system is ideally the best way to accomplish this result, or that it could not have been done, perhaps with less time and expense, by some other expedient, but only that this is what it did do historically, and possibly further that the general history of the world shows it to be a natural method in similar cases.
The phrase of Hegel, that the feudal system was a protest of barbarism against barbarism, and that of Henri Martin, that it concealed in its bosom the weapons with which it would be itself one day smitten, are strictly accurate.' It kept alive the theory of the state, with the king at its head, in the possession of almost absolute rights and prerogatives.
And this was never completely reduced to the condition of a mere theory ; for themselves the kings seem never to have recognized, in the worst days, the claims to independence which the great nobles advanced, and many circumstances accident, the rivalry of one baron with another, the dying out of a line, a dispute between vassal and lord presented opportunities for interference of which even the weakest kings availed themselves, and so added to theory something in the way of actual fact. When we reach the point where there is the most complete recognition by the kings of the feudal law and privileges, in the thirteenth century, we are already at the time when they are seriously undermining the feudal power.' The work of doing this, and of recreating a central authority, was merely the process of putting into actual exercise prerogatives which feudalism had continued to recognize as existing, though not allowing in action. It was simply the successful effort to turn theories into facts.
Feudalism had hardly reached its height, and drawn all society into its forms, when conditions began to prevail which made it possible for a general government to exist for the whole state, and to make its power felt and obeyed in distant localities. The moment that these conditions came into existence, feudalism as a political system, and a substitute for a central government, began to decline. As once all things had conspired together to build it up when it was needed, so now, because its work was done, all things united to pull it down. The history of its fall is the history of the formation of the modern nations.