The feudal system on the continent of Europe thus arose out of the anarchy of endless and ruthless invasions, the break-up of all law and order, the growth of bands of brigands who roamed the country in search of plunder, and the consequent insecurity of workers of every kind. In considering the terrible drawbacks of feudalism and the miserable condition of the serfs and villeins on many of the feudal estates, we are apt to forget or to minimise the state of affairs which preceded its foundation and organisation. Over the greater part of the Roman Empire in decay there was no permanent security for life and property. Inhabitants of country and town were always in danger of slaughter, rapine, incendiarism and outrage of every kind. There was no limit to the horrors which might befall them. Cultivators of the soil were wholly at the mercy of hordes of barbarians and semi-civilised savages from without, as well as the less recorded but still more dreadful bands of freebooters from within.
They naturally looked round, therefore, to obtain protection of some sort. Neither the peasant himself nor his family was trained to military service or in a position to resist either foreign or domestic ruffians. His neighbours were as little qualified to hold their own as his own people. They were all, in fact, powerless, and there was no institution in existence which they could call in to their aid. Consequently leaders accustomed to war and devoted to military service, who gathered around them groups of fighting men, bound to them by success in the field or by remunerative plunder, when they established themselves in rough fortresses, castles or blockhouses, were able to give the workers of all kinds assurance of some sort of security. Even the worst forms of personal military domination arranged between the fighting lords, with their vassals and their villeins, seemed preferable to the unlimited possibilities of perpetual outrage which were constantly threatening those who had no such protection. Contracts of work, service and subservience, though including certain rights which seem to us sensual and cruel in a very high degree, were superior to the anarchy which previously prevailed. Even the right of the first night and the manchette, which in succeeding ages were so bitterly and rightfully resented, appear less horrible when we put ourselves back in imagination into the period that occasioned such inhuman arrangements, and accorded to a brutal and ignorant minority a supremacy in which the more or less cultured ecclesiastics cheerfully participated.
It was in its inception, and for long afterwards, a monstrous social system, little, if at all, in advance of the chattel slavery which it replaced. But out of it a milder and more civilised constitution might and did grow. The horrors of feudal overlordship, with its chivalry, were to the full as great in many ways as those of the large land and slave owners who were their predecessors. It was not from the good and romantic side of feudal domination that the further changes came. Nor, as later events clearly demonstrated, was it possible for these transformations to be brought about suddenly. As with Roman slavery and the Roman drain of wealth without return from the provinces, the economic and social causes below affected the permanence of the whole structure. When the basis was shaken the society as a whole was modified. The overthrow of the old, and the constitution of the new development arose from this modification. Force by itself could not, and did not bring about thorough transformation in any country, until, owing to economic circumstances, which were not necessarily crucial changes in the forms of production themselves, a fresh class had gradually grown up. This class was by degrees capable of defending itself and its slowly acquired social position against the worn-out institutions of the old supremacy. Premature attempts from the top to anticipate the course of evolution proved completely futile.
The natural inclination of historians of the individualist school to exalt unduly the power of great men induced even Gibbon to attach too much importance to the career of Charlemagne. A great man may help to hasten somewhat the pace of the current of his period; he may even arrest anarchy for a time and bring temporary order out of chaos. But that, in days of overturn and conflict, any men or set of men can permanently advance or seriously check the general tendency is proved to be an illusion by all the teachings of history. This is true when there are no unforeseen external events to complicate and confuse the situation. But when to internal disorder is superadded anarchy engineered from without, not the ablest brain that ever functioned can achieve his purpose, or establish a continuous policy. Charlemagne tried to reorganise the separate and disorderly territories of the Roman Empire of the West into something approaching a cohesive and legally constituted power. He was partially successful during his lifetime, and he has on that account been universally acclaimed as a wise and foreseeing ruler. But how little of his influence was lasting, and to how small a degree the mass of the people in his dominions benefited by his wide Imperialist statesmanship, is apparent from what followed immediately upon his death.
All the elemental forces of social and industrial chaos broke out with more persistence than before. The tyranny and cruelty of the majority of the lords towards their dependents remained unchecked. Internecine conflicts between members of the royal house were faithfully reproduced among the nobles. All efficient combination against the inroads of pirates, swashbucklers, Moslems and barbarian hordes was thus rendered impossible. Normans, Arabs and Huns still continued their raids and devastations throughout the West. The Normans in France and Germany were for some time the most formidable of the three sets of invaders. They ravaged, butchered and pillaged all up the Rhine and its surrounding districts; burning the small towns and villages on the way, and collecting considerable booty from the abbeys, monasteries, convents and castles which they sacked. Semi-organised feudalism had no forces capable of resisting these ruthless tribes. Rushing down with their fleet of rovers from the North, these sea-wolves at the same date went up the Seine, carrying on the like programme of seemingly purposeless slaughter and rapine. Having looted the outlying towns and chateaux as they did in Germany, they then took and plundered Paris. These became familiar exploits. The numbers of these Scandinavian pirates were comparatively small, but their courage and ferocity were great.
What, however, gave special significance to these and many other successful expeditions was that frequently the common folk in the invaded districts, furiously embittered against their own domestic enemies, the Frankish knights, who had formed part of the previous wave of exterminators and settlers, and the ecclesiastical oppressors who shared the plunder, made common cause with the Norman freebooters, taking advantage of the opportunity to avenge themselves terribly upon their persecutors. The cutting off of hands and feet, the disembowelling, burning alive and long drawn-out torturings, familiarly practised by the high-born aristocracy of expropriation and plunder upon their serfs and villeins, were inflicted upon them in turn by these same serfs and villeins, who gladly welcomed Normans as friends and allies. Rough justice was thus administered in France, Germany and elsewhere; just as Roman slaves had sometimes taken the like revenge upon their masters when, with the barbarian invasions, their chance came.
History and tradition tell of many instances when, under Charlemagne’s feeble successors and later on, the peasantry, who saw no hope of relief from the life of toil and misery to which they were doomed, gave aid and information which enabled the raiders to capture towns and fortresses that might otherwise have successfully resisted attack. But these private slaughterings on the one side, to avenge terrible wrongs on the other, had no direct influence in bettering the condition of serfs and villeins. For the new invaders in France soon ceased to be mere invaders; they intermarried into the highest Frankish families, from the royal caste downwards, and became permanent exploiters and oppressors like the feudal magnates with whom they had allied themselves. They thus joined forces against the common people with their predecessors; and found no difficulty in embracing the Christian religion, which in these matters of class domination always proved very adaptable.
The Catholic Church, which has quite unwarrantably taken to itself great credit for ameliorating the lot of the peasants, as it did for emancipating the chattel slaves on equally invalid grounds, was one of the largest and most extravagant of landowners. The condition of the serfs and villeins on the estates of the princes of the Church was just as bad as it was on those of the nobles. Their possessions were enormous, as was clearly discerned at the time of the French Revolution. The properties belonging to the Bishopric of Paris in the tenth century were carefully catalogued by the official scribe of that time. They exceed in value and extent the vast possessions of the great Roman millionaire, Atticus, and his wealth in money, land and slaves was spread over a much wider area. Estates, townships and villages in all the departments of France brought in great revenues. They extended over the best land in the country, with more than twenty thousand serfs. The great ecclesiastical potentate, who retained a large proportion of the wealth for his own use, lorded it over his lay peers with an amount of arrogance never exhibited by the proudest priests of paganism. When one of these bishops was to be newly enthroned, the King of France, Charles le Sot, with the help of the greatest of his nobility, carried the golden litter that bore him from his palace right into the cathedral. But the thousands upon thousands of serfs who provided this rich representative of the carpenter’s Son with the enormous income he personally derived from his estates were no whit better off than the same class who toiled on the lands of the nobles of the day. It took more than eight hundred years to relieve the French people even partially from this intolerable usurpation of the Church, when the lands of bishops and feudal lords were dealt with together.
So slowly did events move in that long and mournful procession of misery for the mass of the toilers. For century after century Europe was exposed to a protracted siege from north and south and east and west. No sooner had one set of marauders been repelled, or allowed to settle down, than another equally ferocious horde took up the tale of rapine and slaughter. And, as if there were not enough to do at home, just as order was beginning to develop out of this chaos a succession of bootless crusades for the Holy Land, in which lives and wealth were thrown away to no good purpose whatsoever, rendered the confusion worse confounded. Feudal lords, knights and retainers, who might have been of some use on their estates even in consolidating their rough relations with their own dependents, involved themselves in debt, crushed their villeins and serfs and such townsfolk as they could conveniently mishandle by their exactions, and went off to the wars in Palestine and Asia Minor with the funds thus accumulated.
The wonder is that mankind in the West ever succeeded in pulling itself out of this long concatenation of calamities, rendered more unendurable by the maniacal bigotry and bloody superstitions which accompanied them. That the most oppressed class of all were able at intervals to avenge themselves locally, even without the aid of foreign invaders, is certain. But revenge and repression alternately contributed little or nothing to social progress. This came about slowly, almost unseen, below the surface of these anarchical conflicts, which, embittered by religious fury, as in the case of the Albigenses, Huguenots, Lollards and others, led to slaughter of the most horrible kind. Clearly, had the men-at-arms who were guilty of these wholesale atrocities – not confined to the orthodox or Catholic side – combined to attack their masters, they would speedily have gained the day for themselves. But would this have enabled them to hasten forward their economic emancipation and establish a new system? The answer is only a blank – No.
It was not by accident that the feudal system, with its complicated personal arrangements, lasted more than twice as long as the Roman Empire. The local usages and customs, which accorded to the lords rights of justice and almost absolute power within the limits of their fiefs, were opposed by the central authority, or so much as remained of it, in every part of Europe. But local necessities proved stronger than centralised sovereignty. Feudal overlordship above and villeinage and serfdom below endured for many centuries, because, with all the cruelty and horror that accompanied them, there was no institution then available which could take their place. The king or emperor not infrequently favoured the growing power of the bourgeoisie in its early days as a means of holding his own against the greater established power of his nobles. But when independent or allied cities became rich, and capable of asserting their municipal freedom, both the king and the nobility were ready enough to make common cause against them. And all the upper strata of society, outside the successful republics of Italy and some of the German mercantile cities, considered the villeins and serfs and citizens of lower grade little better than human cattle, as their forbears the slaves were considered before them. The very small minority of the lords who behaved well to the people on their estates could not counterbalance the short-sighted majority who so often plundered their peasantry that the latter ceased to be able to provide their masters with the wealth which they claimed. Moreover, many of these nobles were themselves no better than robbers and thieves, who used their fortified castles as centres where they could gather together trained ruffians to attack their neighbours, to strip travellers and to oppress the peasantry who might have looked to them for protection. This state of things was at periods quite common in France and over the greater part of Germany. When, however, peace prevailed, except for a comparatively short time, the undisturbed agricultural population soon restored the prosperity of the pacified region. Nor did the sporadic risings of the peasantry against local oppression interfere with this satisfactory growth, where moderate security reigned. The description by Froissart of the country round the Marne, shortly before the great outbreak of the Jacquerie, shows that the district was in a flourishing condition, in spite of the many troubles which France was passing through prior to the rising.
The country of the Albigenses also, at the time when it was attacked, plundered and devastated and the population massacred by Catholic bigots, was a flourishing district. Other regions which escaped for a time from the horrors of war and the rapine of peace had their periods of prosperity; for there is nothing more remarkable than the manner in which the French peasantry throughout their history have set to work, whenever the opportunity offered, to repair damage done from without or from within by increasing industry and persistent thrift. Nor were the peasantry of other parts of Europe who had fair play much behind their French compeers in the assiduous cultivation of their soil, and their endeavours to make good the desolation wrought. But the mere peace and common justice which they needed to ensure their well-being were precisely what they could not get, in those or in later times.
Last updated on 5.7.2006