When the great series of successful barbarian invasions began, which extended from the North to the Black Sea, the Roman Empire had ceased to be much more than an elaborate instrument for organised taxation of the most ruthless kind. Rome was no longer the capital in any real sense. The Emperors almost ostentatiously proclaimed themselves absentees. Local and national freedoms were crushed, and the Latin language, in various forms of debasement, was the prevailing tongue throughout this vast dominion. The mass of the cultivators were plunged into poverty by exactions of every kind which they could not successfully resist; while the uncertainty of their position, should they succeed in raising themselves above the general level of want, discouraged progress in every way. Officials were no longer administrators even of a corrupt type; they were, as a rule, nothing better than tax-gathering extortioners. At the same time the roads, both general and local, highroads and district roads together, were falling into ruin, and transport, except by water, was becoming more difficult and costly than ever.
All this escaped notice under a temporarily peaceful ruler, who insisted upon tranquillity and decent honesty within the limits of his jurisdiction. This shows that sufficient means of creating wealth, even under a system of production in transition, still existed, but were dried up at their source by wholesale maladministration and malversation. Raids by barbarians, terrible as they were, proved less ruinous than the entire breakdown of trustworthy government during the intervals of devastation. Universal experience has shown, in all agricultural countries from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, that such territories rapidly recover from the most apparently destructive razzias, when peace and settled rule are restored after the attacks. Only when the process of restoration is hampered by injustice, over-taxation and oppression within does permanent poverty overwhelm a society mainly composed of cultivators. The barbarians themselves came in as settlers and colonisers as much as conquerors. In some cases this was almost welcome. The Goths, Visigoths, Ostrogoths and the Germanic tribes generally, moved probably by increase of population beyond what their cleared areas would support, and pushed onwards by incursions of other hordes from the East, of which we possess no clear record, continued their attacks, systematically, for more than three centuries and a half before the Empire lay completely at their mercy and open to their full subjugation. Scarcely any section of the vast area covered by the old Roman State was free from their conquering march, though the general success of the Roman army on the battlefield and judicious bribes and subsidies arrested their advance for the time. The amount of these subventions to leaders of the Gothic armies, which were paid with apparent ease in gold by the Emperors at Constantinople, shows that, in the East at least, the marked dearth of the precious metals, which had so thoroughly transformed the basis of production in the West, was not of long endurance. The claim of the Roman Empire to worldwide power, as the defender and organiser of the populations within its boundaries, had been destroyed by the course of events. Its right to rule because it promoted the well-being of its subjects had been challenged by its own action, before the barbarians had proved that civilisation, in its period of preparation for a new outlet, could not resist, either militarily or economically, the inroads of peoples in a lower stage of development.
Periods of relative peace were followed by still more and greater attacks; or else, to make confusion worse confounded, the bands of depredators fell out among themselves, at the same time that they carried on conflict with the Romans, thus introducing the horrors of civil war into the maelstrom of general social disorder. It was the result of one of these intestine struggles that gave Italy, not from Rome but from Ravenna, the only generation of steady and beneficent rule which she had known since the Antonines. The barbarian Theodoric, who, history tells us, though brought up in courts, could not write his own name – a sort of Hyder Ali of the West – so ordered matters in the original portion of the Roman dominions that a new era of prosperity seemed to have dawned for the whole peninsula. Two hundred thousand fighting men, with their full proportion of women and children, came over the Julian Alps in winter, repeopled a considerable portion of the territory and, under the stern dictatorship of their leader, taught the Italians that an illiterate Goth with his Arian belief might exercise a better influence than the most learned of the orthodox, destitute of the faculty of leading and governing men. But even a man of genius could not permanently control the current of events. As nominal Vice-Emperor of the Master of Constantinople it is wonderful that he achieved what he did. Elsewhere in the West the social and economic chaos went on much as it did before. A steady policy, based upon a sound system of agriculture, may restrain or entirely hold back commercial and monetary growth for generations and even for centuries. But failing the continuance of such conscious pressure from above, the economic development gradually, though very slowly, works its way on.
The decadent Roman Empire was thus the scene of the most remarkable experiment in the history of mankind. This was nothing less than an endeavour to accommodate within its boundaries a great succession of untutored but warlike tribes to a civilisation which it was not for generations within their power to understand or accept. Though the Germanic hordes before and after the struggle between Odoacer and Theodoric and their wonderful irruptions over Gaul and Spain, Italy, Sicily, Africa, the east of Europe and Asia Minor had grown on their own lines, since their life and customs had been described by Caesar and Tacitus, they were still in the gentile period of development. Their kings and chieftains were the heads of great semi-nomadic communities among whom the relations were based upon blood ties. Their land cultivation and ownership was, in its essence, the limited communism of the village community and the mark. Their tribes possessed slaves and their kings controlled the tribes and confederations of tribes in their war expeditions and acted as their leaders in peace surrounded by the Council of Nobles. But the tribesmen, notwithstanding their personal deference to their rulers, were freemen; and their military discipline was of a very different character from the rigid control exercised over highly paid and highly subsidised troops by successful Roman generals.
It is scarcely surprising that during the long period of confusion, while the organisation of the Roman State was broken up, no satisfactory explanation of the position of the cultivators in the rural districts or of the workers in the towns has ever been given. A full account of the economic and social relations and especially of the lower grades of toilers from the remaining slaves upwards has been rendered more difficult of attainment by the conflict between the Germanic and Latin writers as to the respective influence of Teutonic and Roman institutions throughout Europe. This controversy upon the real meaning of the facts of historic development has been conducted on both sides with a racial rancour which carried with it almost a religious virulence. Even writers of great learning who have gone into the fray destitute of prejudice in favour of either party, and have considered the questions at issue from the standpoint of nations not immediately concerned in the evolution, seem unable to keep clear of a certain partisanship. The antagonism between Roman and Teuton from the fourth and fifth to the ninth and tenth centuries of our era has thus been carried from the field and the farm, the villa and the city of old, into the lecture-rooms and libraries of our own times.
Not until the feudal system was constituted which grew up in, and out of, the welter of disturbance during the intervening centuries, does a distinct and recognisable class of oppressed humanity, answering in any degree to the great slave aggregations of antiquity, appear below the series of personal and property, country and township antagonisms, engendered by the unconscious endeavour to reduce this vast economic and social chaos to some sort of order. But this endeavour, which was general rather than collective, appears to have been essentially a blind and unconscious movement. No guiding intelligence whatever can be discerned from beginning to end. Not even the Catholic Church, which exercised so great a material and semi-supernatural influence, nor the ablest of the civilian statesmen even conceived, or could put into operation a clear policy. The barbarians, who came in to obtain wider scope for their increasing numbers, had a more intelligible idea of what they desired to achieve than the feudal kings and barons with their feudatory chiefs and retainers who constituted the social and economic institutions which succeeded them.
With the infinite complexities of the feudal arrangements we have in this connection nothing to do. They varied greatly in each province of what was once Roman territory, and have little more direct bearing upon the modified forms of slavery and serfdom, which underlay them all, than the different standards of slave-owning existence, in various regions, when Rome was at the height of her power, affected the chattel slaves who were the principal agents of production, rural and urban. Serfs and villeins and peasants were the human instruments upon whose labours the whole superstructure was built.
The actual forms of production remained much what they had been for centuries, or even thousands of years, before. Improvements in agriculture, such as the three-course or two-course system of husbandry, in place of the continuous cropping of the same acreage, somewhat superior ploughs and other tools, and even some improvement of roads connecting the monasteries, as in England, did not change the general methods of cultivation. Nor did they affect the dependence, economic and political, of the towns upon the country, which was so great a change from the supremacy of the cities over the country during the Empire. There was, in fact, no clear modification of the methods of production themselves, either among the cultivators or the artisans, which would account for the alteration in the superstructure. The alterations in the relations between classes above and below were due, not to any marked advances in the command of man over nature, but to the inevitable effort of one form of society to adapt its general arrangements to another form, which, disposing of similar means of production, was itself at another stage of human social development. During this period of complicated resettlement there were local revolts of the downtrodden classes, some recorded, and many more probably of which we possess no account.
There can be no doubt that the more or less communal forms which the invading tribes brought with them into Europe greatly influenced the long stage of development which led up to the establishment of feudalism. The basis of feudalism in the first instance was military tenure and personal relations. But village communities with communal arrangements and the culture of open fields in strips were to be found all over Europe, below the military tenures and the status of free fighting men. It is not possible to go direct from the Roman institutions of slavery, coloni attached to the soil as serfs, coloni who were not so attached but free after paying their tribute, or the really free workers in country or town. Neither is it possible to connect the Roman villa and its “villicus,” or superintendent acting on behalf of the proprietor, with the manor and its lord or his bailiff, any more than we can bridge over the difference between the “college” of Roman artisans and the guilds of the towns in the Middle Ages. Roman law and Roman institutions generally had, however, an increasing influence both before and during the consolidation of Feudalism, as the main social organisation of the time. Slavery in its old form had ceased to be economically advantageous; but, as already said, it had lasted long enough to cast a slur upon the performance of all productive labour.
Coloni, free coloni and actually free farmers were also in such constant fear of all forms of robbery, official and unofficial, that, even when the Roman Empire was still in being, they placed themselves and their property under the control of men of wealth who possessed enough influence, and possibly sufficient retainers, to protect them from absolute ruin. In order to obtain reward for this protection and attach their subordinates personally to themselves, the great landowners insisted upon having the titles of the smaller owners transferred to them. That gave unscrupulous owners absolute power. So heavy did various exactions and demands consequently become that in many districts barbarian invasion was preferred to Roman domination. Landlord protection, in fact, took the form of landlord expropriation wherever this seemed advantageous. Whether Goth, Visigoth or Vandal overcame their own domestic economic and social tyrants was, therefore, of small account to the cultivators if they themselves, the victims in any case, escaped slaughter. The barbarians merely did at a blow what the native landowners and ex-proprietors did by degrees: they proclaimed themselves owners and masters in collective right under their princes and chiefs (who developed in time into monarchs and nobles) of a very large proportion of the conquered territory. Gentile society of kinship merged partially into what remained of the people of Roman descent. Ties of blood were replaced by ties of personal allegiance to the victorious leaders; by ties of material interest; or by the semi-communal arrangements of the village community passing onwards into the manor. But in all the later stages of this coalesced development which differed considerably in different parts of Europe there was no such thing as absolute individual freedom.
Everyone in the community, from the lowest unfree villein or feudal serf through the various gradations up to the highest noble or king, had his place marked out for him by customs, rights and local arrangements which were stronger than any laws, but were liable to be translated in the interest of the holders of forces at command which were stronger still. Only by slow degrees did the economic and social order make headway against the habitual infractions of beneficial conventions. And this was the case from one end of Europe to the other. The sixth and seventh centuries, which are regarded as the climax of disorder, were little if at all worse for the mass of the people than those which followed. So much of civilisation, in any sense, as survived was confined to the small wealthy class, including the clergy, who were to the full as cruel and unscrupulous in their oppression as the most ignorant and brutal of the lay lords. The temporal power of great possessions sanctified by ecclesiastical privilege, strengthened by the monopoly of legal fraud and the custody of documents, written and retained by themselves, gave the Christian Church an authority over the poor of every grade exceeding that of the lay lords of the soil. Though also they might, for purposes of their own, enjoin emancipation of serfs and villeins upon others and maintain a right of asylum within their sanctuaries, none were so slow to recognise the freedom of men on their own properties as the heads of organised Catholicism in those troubled times.
The serfs and villeins, consequently, had less protection against unendurable tyranny than their immediate forbears the slaves under the later Roman emperors. But when the whole of this long epoch is surveyed from the gradual cessation of the Germanic invasions, the permanent settlement of these bands of barbarians upon the conquered territory, the final collapse of the Roman Empire of the West with its state organisation up to the establishment of Feudalism as a recognised institution, it is still impossible to trace the details of the development of the new forms of human exploitation with sufficient accuracy through these ages of perpetual turmoil. The history of the poor, from the economic breakdown of chattel slavery to the general establishment, and in turn the general decay, of serfdom has not been adequately written. It comprises, we know, one long succession of horrors. The idea that the invaders brought with them freedom for the mass of the toilers is quite illusory. The landowners of the dark ages, notwithstanding the partial adoption of the methods of the village communities, were quite as brutal in their treatment of the subjugated peoples as were the slave-owners of old time.
Last updated on 5.7.2006