Paul Lafargue

The Evolution of Property

Feudal Property


FEUDAL property presents itself under two forms: immovable property, called corporeal by the French feudists, consisting of a castle or manor with its appurtenances and surrounding lands, “as far as a capon can fly;” and movable or incorporeal property, consisting of military service, aids, reliefs, fines, tithes, etc.

Feudal property, of which ecclesiastical property is but a variety, springs up in the midst of village communities based on collective property, and evolves at their expense; after a long series of transformations it is resolved into bourgeois or capitalist property, the adequate form of private property.

Feudal property, and the social organisation which corresponds thereto, serve as a bridge from family, or, more correctly, consanguine collectivism to bourgeois individualism.

Under the feudal system the landlord has obligations and is far from enjoying the liberty of the capitalist – the right to use and abuse. The land is not marketable; it is burdened with conditions, and is transmitted according to traditionary customs which the proprietor dares not infringe; he is bound to discharge certain defined duties towards his hierarchical superiors and inferiors.

The system, in its essence, is a compact of reciprocal services; the feudal lord only holds his land and possesses a claim on the labour and harvests of his tenants and vassals on condition of doing suit and service to his superiors and lending aid to his dependants. On accepting the oath of fealty and homage the lord engaged to protect his vassal against all and sundry by all the means at his command; in return for which support the vassal was bound to render military and personal service and make certain payments to his lord. The latter, in his turn, for the sake of protection, commended himself to a more puissant feudal lord, who himself stood in the relation of vassalage to a suzerain, to the king or emperor.

All the members of the feudal hierarchy, from the serf upwards to the king or emperor, were bound by the ties of reciprocal duties. A sense of duty was the spirit of feudal society, just as the lust of lucre is the soul of our own. All things were made to contribute to the impressing it upon the minds of great and small alike. Popular poetry, that primeval and all-powerful instrument of education, exalted duty into a religion. Roland, the epic hero of feudalism, assailed and overwhelmed by the Saracens at Roncevalles, upbraids his companion-in-arms, Oliver, who complains of Charlemagne’s desertion of them, in this wise:

“Ne dites tel ultrage.
Mai seit de l’coer ki el piz se cuardet!
Nus remeindrum en estal en la place;
Par nus i iert e li colps e li caples.”

“Pur sun seignur deit hum suffrir granzmals;
E endurer e forz freiz e granz calz
Si’n deit hum perdre del’sanc e de la carn
Fier de ta lance e jo de Durendal,
Ma bone espée que li Reis me dunat
Se jo i moerc, dire poet ki l’avrat,
Que ele fut a nobilie vassal!” [1]

Consanguine collectivism had but created the communal unit; feudalism called forth a provincial and national life by knitting together the independent and insulated groups of a province or a nation by a reciprocity of duties and services. Viewed in this light feudalism is a federation of baronies.

The duties which the lord owed his serfs, tenants and vassals were manifold and onerous, but with the decay of feudalism he shook off these duties, while, at the same time, he continued to exact and even aggravated, the dues and obligations which, originally, had been but the recompense of services he had rendered. Not content with neglecting his feudal duties, he raised a claim to the lands of his vassals, as also to the communal domains and forests. The feudists, justly stigmatised as “feudal pens,” maintained that the woodlands, forests, and meadows had immemorially belonged to the lord, who had merely resigned the usufruct thereof to his serfs and vassals. The English feudists made shorter work of it. They fabricated history and declared that at some period – 

“sometimes vaguely associated with the feudalisation of Europe, sometimes more precisely with the Norman Conquest – the entire soil of England was confiscated; that the whole of each manor became the lord’s demesne; that the lord divided certain parts of it among his free retainers, but kept a part in his own hands to be tilled by his villeins; that all which was not required for this distribution was left as the lord’s waste; and that all customs which cannot be traced to feudal principles grew up insensibly through the subsequent tolerance of the feudal chief.” [2]

The bourgeois historians and Merlin, the terrible jurist of the convention and destroyer of the communal lands, solicitous to trace the private form of property to the feudal period, adopted the interested thesis of the aristocrats. The history of the genesis and evolution of feudal property will prove the unsoundness of the feudists’ theory and show that seignorial property was built up by fraud and violence.


The feudal system appears as the hierarchical organisation of authority, notwithstanding that it was the outgrowth of a society of equals; but equality could never have brought forth despotism but for the co-operation, during centuries, of events which, for the understanding of that genesis, must be kept in mind.

The Teutonic tribes who had invaded Western Europe were a nomad population, in a state of barbarism nearly akin to that of the Iroquois tribes at the time of the discovery of America. Strabo tells us that the barbarians established in Belgium and in the North-East of France were ignorant of agriculture, and lived exclusively on milk and flesh; principally on pork, fresh or salt; that they possessed herds of swine – savage and dangerous as wolves – roaming at large in the immense forests which covered the country, and so abundant as to supply them with food and the means of buying the few articles they stood in need of. Strabo adds that the Gauls had similar manners, and that to know them it required but to contemplate the Germans of his time. When Cæsar landed in England he found that the Britons inhabiting Kent possessed much the same manners and customs as the Gauls; they did not till the land; they subsisted on a milk diet and on flesh, and were clad in skins. They painted their bodies blue in order to strike terror into their enemies, and had their wives in common by groups of ten or twelve, including brothers, fathers and sons. [3] In Europe and elsewhere the point of departure is the same.

The widest equality reigned among these barbarians, who were all warriors and hunters, and whose manners and usages tended to preserve this heroic equality. When they settled and began to practise a rude kind of agriculture, they undertook warlike expeditions for the purpose of keeping up the exercise of fighting. A war chief of renown needed but to announce that he was starting on a campaign to see warriors flock to him, eager for spoils and glory. During the expedition they owed him obedience, as did the Greek warriors to Agamemnon, but they ate at the same table and banqueted with him without distinction of persons, and the booty was divided equally and by lot. Back again in their villages, they recovered their independence and equality, and the war chief lost his authority.

It is in this free and equal fashion that the Scandinavians, and in fact all barbarians, organised their expeditions. These piratical manners prevailed during the whole of the middle ages; when William the Conqueror and Pope Innocent III wanted to levy an army against the English and the Albigenses, it was only necessary for them to promise a division of the spoils taken from the vanquished. Before the battle of Hastings, just as the troops were about to engage in fight, William, with a loud voice called out to his soldiers:

“Fight bravely and put all to death; if we win, we shall all be rich; what I get, you shall get; if I conquer, you will conquer? if I obtain the land, you will obtain it.”

His Holiness the Pope used similar language on the 10th of March, in the year 1208, on stirring up the faithful to fight the heretic Albigenses:

“Up now, soldiers of Christ; root out impiety by every means that God may have revealed to you (the means that the Lord had revealed were fire, rapine, and murder), drive out of their castles the Earl of Toulouse and his vassals, and seize upon their lands, that the orthodox Catholics may be established in the dominions of the heretics.”

The Crusades which launched the warriors of Europe on the East were similarly organised, having the delivery of the Holy Sepulchre for pretence and plunder for object. [4]

When the barbarians, in quest of territory, had conquered a country, they either put the inhabitants to death (as the Hebrews did, by Divine order), or contented themselves with ransacking the towns; they settled in the country, which they set about cultivating in their own way, and allowed the vanquished to live alongside of them according to their own customs and usages. But when they became sedentary and cultivators of the land, they little by little lost their warlike habits, although some of them remained invincibly attached to the primitive manners. The Germans observed by Tacitus had already lost some of their savage fierceness; they had established themselves and become addicted to agriculture; the tribe of the Catti, however, were dedicated to war. Always in the forefront of battle, they occupied the most dangerous posts; they possessed neither houses nor lands, nor had they cares of any sort. Wherever they presented themselves they were entertained. These warriors formed a kind of standing army, charged with defending those of their countrymen who were engaged in agricultural pursuits.

But no sooner had the invading barbarians established themselves and lost their native vigour than other barbarians pounced upon them as on an easy prey, and treated them like a conquered people. During many centuries compact masses of barbarians overran Europe: in the east, the Goths, Germans, and Huns; in the north and west, the Scandinavians; in the south, the Arabians; desolating the towns and country in their passage. And when from east and north and south this human flood had ceased to pour down into Europe, and when the barbarians had lost their nomadic habits and resumed the work of civilisation which they had arrested and frustrated, there was unloosed another scourge; bands of armed men overspread the country, plundering and ransacking and levying contributions on every side; the battle over, the soldiers of the hostile armies fraternised and started on an expedition on their own account. [5]

During many centuries people lived in continual fear of robbery, kidnapping and murder. The invasions of the barbarians that ruined and disorganised the country did not prevent the tribes already settled from quarrelling among themselves. These constant internecine quarrels render barbarian nations powerless in the face of strangers; they are unable to stifle their clan hatreds and their village feuds in front of a common enemy. Tacitus, intent solely on the supremacy of the Romans, adjured the gods to foment this disastrous discord; for, said he, “fortune can bestow no higher benefit on Rome than the dissensions of her enemies.” [6]

The inhabitants of the towns and provinces were constrained, for safety’s sake, to live in fortified places. The charters of Auvergne of the 11th and 12th centuries designate such villages by the term of castra (camp). In the towns and boroughs houses were constructed in view of the necessity of sustaining a siege.

The village collectivities which, at the outset, were composed almost exclusively of individuals belonging to the same clan, and consequently equals, elected chieftains charged with their defence, who eventually came to gather into their hands the several rights of jurisdiction, of settling differences, of interpreting the customs, and maintaining order. The Franks in their barbarous Latin called such a chieftain graffio, from graf the German for count. The elected chief of the village collectivities are the feudal barons in embryo.

In the beginning they were simply public officers subjected to the authority of the council of the elders and the popular assemblies, and with the execution of whose decisions they were charged; they were severely punished for every neglect of duty. [7] The graffio of the Frankish tribes who omitted to expel a stranger whose expulsion had been voted by the assembly was amerced in a fine of 200 gold solidi (Lex Salica). This was exactly the sum assessed as composition for murder (Weregild).

The powers which were at a later date to become the appanage of the feudal lords, belonged to the community met in full assembly (Folkmoote). All of the inhabitants were bound to attend in arms, under penalty of a fine; certain village collectivities possessed serfs, as, later on, did the lords.

The laws of Wales, collected in 940, by order of King Hoel-Du, and published in 1841 by A. Owen, indicate the mode of election and the qualities and the functions of these village chiefs which do not substantially differ from those of the barbarian war-chief. The chief of the clan was chosen by all the heads of families having wives and legitimate offspring, and he held his office for life; among certain peoples his functions were temporary and revocable. It was imperative “that he should speak on behalf of his kin and be listened to; that he should fight on behalf of his kin and be feared; that he should be security on behalf of his kin and be accepted.” When he administered justice he was assisted by the seven oldest villagers; under his orders stood an avenger, charged with executing vengeance; for justice at that epoch was but revenge – the lex talionis – blow for blow, wound for wound. On the first alarm, after the clamour, called haro by the Normans and biafor by the Basques, the inhabitants were bound to issue forth from their houses, in arms, and place themselves under their chieftain’s command; he was the military chief, to whom all owed fidelity and obedience. Whoever failed to respond to his appeal was fined. In certain boroughs we find a military organisation, e.g., at Tarbes the inhabitants were formed into tithings having at their head a tithing-man, whose office it was to see that all the men were armed and that their arms were in good condition. [8]

All functions amongst barbarian tribes tend to become vested in certain families; the weaver’s, smith’s, priest’s, and magician’s callings are handed down from father to son; it is in this way that castes arise. The chief, charged with the maintenance of order at home and the duty of defence abroad, was chosen out of the body of the inhabitants; but little by little it became the habit to choose him out of the same family, which, ultimately, itself designated the chief of the community and omitted the formality of an election. It would be erroneous to suppose that in the beginning the chieftainship carried with it any special privilege; so far, indeed, was chieftainship from being coveted, that the man elected by the community was made liable to a fine if he refused to accept the charge. At Folkestone, if either the mayor or any of the jurats refused to assume their respective offices upon being elected, “the commoners were to go and beat down their principal messuage.” At Hastings it was a law that “if the bailiff will not accept the charge all the commoners shall go and beat down his tenement.” [9]

Greatness was dangerous: the Scandinavians, in great calamities – in a pressing famine, for example – sacrificed their king, as the highest price with which they could purchase the Divine favour. In this manner the first king of Vermaland, a province of Sweden, was burnt in honour of Odin, to put an end to a great dearth. Earl Hakon, of Norway, offered his son in sacrifice to obtain of Odin the victory over the Jomsburg pirates, and Gideon immolated his daughter to Jehovah for a similar reason.

The Indian village communities observed in our day have, for public officers, weavers, smiths, school-masters, brahmins, dancers, etc., who are in the service of the community which rewards them by a lodging, an allowance of grain, and the allotment of a plot of land cultivated by the villagers. [10]

“In early Greece the demiurgoi seem to be the analogues of these Hindoo officials. Homer mentions the herald, the prophet, the bard, all of whom, although we cannot trace their exact position, appear to have exercised some kind of public function. Among the Keltic clans similar classes are known to have existed.” [11]

The chiefs elected by the village collectivities were treated in the same way as the officers of the Hindoo villages: their companions, in reward of their services, allotted them a larger share of land than to the rest of the inhabitants. Thus, in the borough of Malmesbury, the alderman, who was the chief man, was annually granted a piece of land, known as the “Alderman’s kitchen,” in order that he might devote himself exclusively to the discharge of his office; his fields were cultivated by the commoners, who allowed him a share in their harvest and livestock. [12]

At the outset no special distinction marks out the elected chief; but the practice of continuously choosing him in the same family ended by creating a privilege that was changed into a hereditary right; the head of the privileged family became, by right of succession, and without requiring to submit to an election, the natural chief of the village. The royal authority had no other origin than this in the Frankish tribes. The leudes must be the heads of the families of the clan which are charged with furnishing the military chieftains; just as, among the Hebrews, the tribes of Levy must furnish the priests. They resided with the king and were partakers of the royal councils; upon occasions they resisted him and even offered him violence; it was these leudes who elected the king, whose functions became hereditary.

The village collectivities were perpetually at war with one another; in the partitions of the conquered lands the share of the chieftain and his family was, doubtless, more considerable than that of the commoners; to the privilege of birth was gradually superadded that of property.

On electing the village chief, the choice fell, we may presume, on the owner of the most spacious dwelling-house, affording the greatest facilities of defence and the best place of refuge for the peasants on an emergency. This strategical advantage, which, originally, may have been a matter of accident, came to be a condition exacted from every chieftain; in the Indian villages beyond the border the burj, or watch tower, is always attached to the house of the chief, and in constant use as a place of refuge and observation. During the feudal period every lord was bound to possess a castle or fortified house having a courtyard protected by moats and drawbridges, a large square tower and a grist mill, to enable the peasants to shelter their crops and cattle, grind their corn and organise their defence. The chieftain’s dwelling-house was considered as a sort of common house, and actually became such in times of danger. The members of the village collectivities applied themselves to repairing and fortifying it, surrounding it with walls and trenches; it was the custom for the members of a village to aid in the construction and repair of the houses of all the inhabitants without distinction. This custom is the origin of the right possessed by the feudal lord “to compel his vassals and tenants to contribute towards the construction of the fortifications in time of war.” And the commentary of the feudal writer indicates the origin of the right.

”And as these fortifications serve alike for the security of the country and the towns, the safety of persons, and the conservation of property, non-residents owning lands in the locality are bound to contribute towards the same.”

The barbarians, who were more of warriors than of cultivators, defended their houses and villages themselves; on the first alarm they rushed forth in battle array and placed themselves under the command of the chieftain, to assist him in beating back the aggressors; in the watch tower they mounted guard by day and watched at night; in many places the lord retained the right to exact from his vassals this service of watch and ward. But when agricultural habits began to get the upper hand, the peasants commuted this military service, which interfered with their pursuits, into a tribute to the chief; on condition that he should maintain a body of men-at-arms, charged exclusively with the work of protection and defence. A proportion of every fine imposed on a delinquent was reserved for the chieftain and his men-at-arms. The chief was thus placed in a position to maintain an armed force which finally enabled him to impose his will and dominate his ancient companions.

The village built in the best strategical positions became a centre; in the event of invasion the inhabitants of the adjacent villages flocked to it for refuge, and in return for the protection afforded them in the hour of danger they were called on to contribute towards the costs of repairing the fortifications and maintaining the men at arms. The authority of these village chiefs extended to the surrounding country.

In this natural manner were generated in the collectivist villages, all of whose members were equal in rights and duties, the first elements of feudalism; they would have remained stable during centuries, as in India, but for the impulse of external events which disturbed them and infused them with new life. Wars and conquests developed these embryonic germs, and by agglomerating and combining them, built up the vast feudal system diffused during the Middle Ages, over Western Europe.

What in modern times has taken place in India helps us to realise the role of conquest in transforming the village chieftain into the feudal baron. When the English, established along the sea coasts, extended their dominion inland, they were brought into contact with villager organised in the manner described above; every agricultural group was commanded by a peasant, the head-man, who spoke in its name, and negotiated with the conquerors. The English authorities did not trouble to inquire into the origin and precise nature of his powers, or of the office held by him in the community; they preferred to take for granted that he was the master of the village of which he was but the representative, and to treat him as such; they enhanced and solidified his authority by all the weight conferred by the right of the strongest, and on divers occasions assisted the head-man in oppressing his quondam companions, and despoiling them of their rights and possessions.

The mediæval conquerors acted in an analogous fashion; they confirmed the local chiefs in their possession of those posts in the villages which were too unimportant to be bestowed as benefices on their liege-men, and, in return, made them responsible for the levying of the taxes and the conduct of their dependants, thereby according them an authority they had not previously possessed in the village collectivities. But in every strategical place they installed one of their own warriors; it was a military post which they confided to him; the length of tenure of such posts, called benefices, was subject to variation; at first, they were revoked at pleasure, afterwards granted for life, and ultimately became hereditary. The beneficiary tenants took advantage of circumstances to turn their hereditary possessions into alodial property, i.e., into land exempt from all obligations. In France the early kings were repeatedly obliged to make ordinances against this kind of usurpation. “Let not him who holds a benefice of the emperor or the church convert any of it into his patrimony,” says Charlemagne in a capitulary of the year 803 (Cap. viii., s.3). But such ordinances were powerless to prevent the conversion of military chiefs into feudal barons. It may be said, therefore, that the feudal system had a dual origin; on the one hand it grew out of the conditions under which the village collectivities evolved, and on the other it sprang from conquest.

The feudal barons, whether village-chiefs transmogrified by the natural march of events, or military chieftains installed by the conquerors, were bound to reside in the country which it was their duty to administer and defend. The territory they possessed and the dues they received, in the shape of labour and tithes, were the recompense of services rendered by them to the cultivators placed under their jurisdiction. The barons and their men-at-arms formed a permanent army, nourished and maintained by the inhabitants whom they directly protected. [13]

The baron owed justice, aid, and protection to his vassals, and these, in their turn, owed fidelity and homage to their lord. At every change, consequent on the death of either lords or vassals, the vassal was bound, within a space of 40 days, to repair to the principal manor there and not elsewhere, to indicate that he only swore fealty prospectively to a refuge in the baron’s castle; if the lord was absent and had left no representative, the vassal made a vow of fealty in front of the manor-door, and caused the fact to be entered on the records. He was bound to come with his head uncovered and his belt ungirt, without sword and spurs, and to kneel down with his hands joined. The lord, in accepting his oath, took his vassal’s hands into his own, in token of union and protection. The vassal thereupon enumerated the lands and dependencies which he placed under the safeguard of his lord; in early times he brought with him a clod of turf from his fields. Occasionally, too, the lord was the first to take his engagements towards his vassals. In the Fors de Bigorre (customary of Bigorre), it is said that the Comte de Bigorre,

“before receiving the oath of the inhabitants of the land, delegated to that effect, shall himself take the oath that he will change nothing in the ancient customs, nor in such as he shall find the people in possession of; he must have his oath confirmed by that of four nobles of his domain.”

The vassal owed military service to his lord when a foreign army had invaded his territory, when he wanted to deliver his besieged castle, or when he set out on a declared war – a war, that is to say, entered upon in the interests of the inhabitants. But, although closely bound to him, the vassal might abandon his lord in certain cases specified in the capitularies of the years 813 to 816, to wit, if his lord had sought to kill him or reduce him to slavery , beaten him with a stick or sword, dishonoured his wife or daughter, or robbed him of his patrimony.

So soon as the authority of the feudal nobility was constituted, it became, in its turn, a source of trouble to the country whose defence it had been charged with. The barons, in order to enlarge their territories and extend their power, carried on continual warfare among themselves, only interrupted now and again by a short truce necessitated by the tillage of the fields. The wars of the barons may be compared to the industrial and commercial competition of modern times. The outcome is the same; both alike culminate in the concentration of property, and the social supremacy which it bestows. The vanquished, when not killed outright or utterly despoiled, became the vassals of the conqueror, who seized upon a portion of their lands and vassals. The petty barons disappeared for the benefit of the great ones, who became potent feudatories, and established ducal courts at which the lords in vassalage were bound to attend.

It frequently happened that the barons turned highwaymen, who plundered the fields and robbed the towns and travellers; they deserved the epithets of gens-pille-hommes, gens-tue-hommes (killers and pickers of men) which were applied to them. [14]

The towns were constrained to put themselves under the safeguard of the king or great feudatories, who concentrated the lands and feudal power, and changed the barons into courtiers. But in proportion as the petty barons disappeared, by so much the warfare slackened between castle and castle; a measure of tranquillity was restored to the country, and the necessity for feudal protection ceased to be paramount. The lords, consequently, were in a position to absent themselves from their domains and to betake themselves to the ducal and royal courts; thither they went to play the courtier, and ceased to act as defenders of their vassals and dependants. From the hour that the cultivator no longer stood in need of military service, the feudal system had no reason to exist. Feudalism, born of warfare, perished by warfare; it perished by the very qualities which had justified its existence.

But so long as the feudal system subsisted, there remained traces of the primitive equality which had been its cradle, even though every vestige had disappeared of the equality which had distinguished the relations of the lord with his tenants and vassals. The feudal lord and the vassal became co-equals once again in the communal assemblies which discussed the agricultural interests alike of the villager and the lord; the assemblies met without his sanction, and despite his unwillingness to convoke them. His communal rights were as limited as those of the rest of the inhabitants; the heads of cattle he was entitled to send to pasture on the commons were strictly prescribed. Delisle, in his interesting study of the agricultural classes of Normandy, cites texts which show the limitation of his rights, e.g., the Seigneur de Bricqueville was entitled to send only two oxen and one horse to graze on the meadows. He was so far from being privileged that as La Poix de Frémenville, the great feudal jurist, informs us, “The lord who possesses no cattle of his own is not allowed to introduce any strange cattle, whether by letting on lease, selling, or even lending gratis his rights of common.”


The origin of ecclesiastical property is analogous to that of seignorial property. In those turbulent times men fled for protection to the church no less than to the baron’s castle; the priestly power, indeed, far outweighed that of the baron; it was the priest who held the key of paradise. Men willed their goods to the church on their death beds in the hope of securing a seat in paradise; this custom, which was voluntary at the outset, became so general that it ended by being imposed as an obligation.

“Any person dying without leaving a part of his possessions to the Church – which was termed dying déconfés – was debarred from communion and sepulture. If a man died intestate his relations had to appeal to the bishops to appoint arbiters, who conjointly with themselves fixed the amount which the defunct ought to have bequeathed if he had made a testament.” [15]

The fear of the end of the world in the millennium contributed to multiply the donations to the priests and monasteries, for where was the use of keeping one’s lands and chattels, when men and beast were about to perish, and the hour of judgment was at hand? But when the year 1000 had passed away without any sort of cataclysm, people recovered from their fright, and bitterly regretted having parted with, their belongings during their lifetime. With a view to intimidating the good people who demanded the restitution of their goods, the Church had recourse to anathemas and malisons. The cartularies of the period abound with formulas of maledictions calculated to strike terror into the hearts of the donator and his relations; here is a sample of the imprecations which frequently recur in the records of Auvergne.

“If a stranger, if any of your relations, if your son or your daughter should be insensate enough to contest this donation, to lay hands upon the goods dedicated to God and consecrated to His saints, may they be struck, like Herod, with an awful wound, may they, like Dathan, Abiram, and Judas, who sold the Lord, be tortured in the depths of hell.” [16]

But the property of the Church was derived, also, from other less turbid sources: men gave away their possessions and even their persons in exchange for her temporal protection.

“The major part of the acts of voluntary slavery (obnoxatio), says Guérard, were prompted by the spirit of devotion, and by the indulgence practised by the bishops and abbots towards their serfs, and by the benefits which the law accorded them.” [17]

The serfs and vassals of the Church and monasteries enjoyed equal privileges with those belonging to the king; they were entitled to a threefold compensation in case of injury, damage, or death. The king and the Church undertook to prosecute the culprit, whereas, ordinarily, that was the business of the family of the injured person.

The convents were fortified places able to sustain regular sieges, and the monks were experts in the use of arms. At Hastings, churchmen fought on both sides; the Abbey of Hida, a convent situated in Winchester, had brought Harold a contingent of twelve monks, who all fell fighting. The high dignitaries of the church were military chieftains, who laid down their cross and chasuble to grasp a sword and don a cuirass. Many, like the Bishop of Cahors, when they officiated, solemnly deposited on the altar their casque, cuirass, sword, and iron gauntlet. Roland at Roncevalles says to Oliver, in praise of Archbishop Turpin:

“Li arceves ques est mult bons chevaliers:
Nen ad meilleur en terre, desuz ciel,
Bien set ferir e de lance e d’espiet.”

In their enthusiasm for his prowess,

“Dient Francais: ‘Ci ad grant vasselage,
En l’arceves que est bien la croce salve,
Kar placet Dieu qu’assez de tels ait Carles’.” [18]

During the feudal period the clergy alone possessed instruction; this, like their weapons, they placed at the service of the parishioners who maintained them. Many a time they interposed between the rural populations and the lords who oppressed them; just as in Ireland, nowadays, the inferior clergy make common cause against the landlords with the farmers and peasants who provide for their subsistence. But if between the rural and urban populations and the priests there subsisted a close union, the clergy were often at war with the feudal nobility. If in their fits of superstitious terror and feverish piety the barons were capable of stripping themselves of a portion of their lands and riches in favour of the churches and monasteries, in their calmer moments they hankered after the possessions of the monks and priests, and seized the first opportunity of securing them.

The early kings and military chieftains bestowed churches and monasteries on their liege men and soldiers as rewards; from the 8th to the 11th centuries a considerable number of churches were in the hands of laymen. The kings of France down to the 18th century had conserved the droit de régale, which entitled them to all the fruits of the vacant bishoprics. When Henry VIII, the Bluebeard of English story and the Supreme Pontiff of England, in order to reform the Church, suppressed not fewer than 645 monasteries, 90 colleges, 2,374 chantries and free chapels, 100 hospitals, with revenue amounting to two millions per annum, and shared the plunder with his courtiers and concubines, he practised on a larger scale what all his predecessors had done.

The nobility and clergy, the two classes who during the Middle Ages struggled for supremacy, discharged important and necessary functions; the tithes and socage-duty they received were the price of the services they rendered.


feudal burdens outlasted the feudal barons, who vanished when they had grown useless; these dues became the appanage of nobles, often of middle class origin, who did not render the services of which these dues had been the meed. Violently attacked by the bourgeois writers, and energetically defended by the feudists, they were definitely suppressed in France by the revolution of 1789. The earlier English revolution which established bourgeois authority, the House of Commons by the side of the House of Lords, has allowed a number of feudal privileges to subsist which are anachronisms at a time when the aristocratic or landed classes are simply a wing of the “great middle class “ in every sense of the word.

The political economists and liberal bourgeois of this century, instead of investigating the origin of feudal obligations, exposing the transformations they have undergone, and explaining the necessity thereof, have fancied that they were giving proofs of learning and liberality of spirit by a sweeping condemnation of everything in any way connected with the feudal system. Howbeit, it is imperative for the understanding of the social organisation of the Middle Ages to ascertain the signification of these obligations, which are the movable form of feudal property. It would be wearisome to pass in review all of the feudal obligations. I will confine myself to those which have more especially roused the ire of the bourgeois writers, and try to show that if they were maintained and aggravated by force, they had been, at the origin, freely consented to.

SOCAGE. – We have seen that the feudal baron, when not a military chieftain installed by a conqueror, was, as a rule, a simple citizen, a member of the community distinguished by no special privileges from the rest of the villagers, his co-equals; like these he received his allotment in the partition of the lands, and if his acres were cultivated for him by the commoners this was done that he might devote himself exclusively to their defence. Haxthausen has observed that the Russian lord continued to receive a quarter or a third of the territory of the mir which was cultivated by the villagers. Latruffe-Montmeylian says that in France the proportion of the communal lands allotted to the lord varied according to the nature of the rights of the inhabitants. It amounted to two thirds when the peasants’ rights of common extended to the demesne forests, and to a third only when the rights were confined to the communal forest. [19] With the increase of the possessions of the barons and the monks, there followed a lack of serfs to cultivate their lands, wherefore they gave their arable en bordelage to peasant collectivities, “eating from the same pan and off the same loaf,” to use the language of the period. [20] But, whether freemen or serfs, the tenants owed a certain number of days of work to the feudal lord, to till his field or house his corn.

As, at this period, production of commodities and commerce did not as yet exist, the baron, no less than the peasant, was obliged to produce all that was requisite to supply his wants. In the feudal habitation there existed workshops of every description for the manufacture of arms, farming implements, stuffs, clothing, etc., in which the peasants and their wives were bound to work for a certain number of days in the year. The female labourer was under the direction of the lady of the manor herself, and the workshops for the same were termed geniciæ. The monasteries likewise possessed workshops for females. [21] These workshops were rapidly turned into harems for the lords and their retainers, and even into dens of debauchery, in which the barons and the priests debauched their female serfs and vassals. The word geniciaria (woman working in the genicia) became synonymous with prostitute. Our modern brothels, as we see, have a religious and aristocratic origin.

In the beginning the number of days of work due to the baron by his vassal was insignificant; in some places it amounted to three days in the year. [22] In France, the royal ordinances, in default of a contract or custom, prescribed the number of twelve days. Villein socage was harder; but the service was not to exceed three days a week, and the serfs had, further, the enjoyment of a small field which the lord had ceded to him and from which he could not be expelled; he had also a share in the baron’s harvest and a right of pasture in the forest and arable lands. Count Grasparin, who was Minister of Agriculture under Louis XVIII, in his treaty on Fermage, published in 1821, states his belief in the superiority, as regards the landed proprietor, of the system of métayage to that of socage. But in the decline of the feudal system the lords abused their power to aggravate socage. “They had usurped such authority,” says Jean Chenu, a writer of the beginning of the seventeenth century, “that they exacted the labour of tillage, the gathering their grapes and a thousand other services, with no better title than the peasants’ fear of being beaten or eaten up by their men at arms.” When, in the fourteenth century, peace was gradually established in the interior of Europe, every useful function had been taken away from the feudal baron; and the nobles who succeeded the barons became parasites and tyrants.

BANS DE MOISSON. – It has been supposed that the lord’s right of prescribing the days on which to mow the fields, gather the grapes, reap the corn, etc., was a purely feudal one, whereas its origin is traceable to the period in which collective property obtained. We have seen above that in order to allow the arable lands to remain open to the cattle of the village, the elders fixed the days for the various harvests. This usage, established in the interests of the villagers, could only be diverted from its true ends when the lord began to traffic with his crops. He substituted his own authority for that of the council of the elders, or influenced their decisions so as to retard the proclamation of the ban des moissons and be beforehand with his own crops, and able, consequently, to sell them earlier and on better terms than the produce of the communal fields.

BANALITÉ. [23] – The term is feudal; but the custom which it designates is a communistic one. In the village collectivities, certain offices, as afore shown, were filled by individuals maintained at the expense of the commune; there was the village herdsman, who drove the cattle to pasture; there were common forges, mills, slaughter-houses, and animals to breed from, at the disposal of the community. Private families, instead of baking their own bread, sent it to be baked in the communal oven; a custom introduced from the economical consideration of reducing the consumption of fuel. The charge of watching over and attending to these ovens was entrusted to the council of elders; thereafter to the lord, who, whenever it was in his interest to do so, substituted his own authority for that of the men commissioned by the commune. A small tax was levied for this right of usage of the common objects; in an ordinance of 1223, of Guillaume Blanchemain, Archbishop of Reims, it is said that “the prelate shall be the proprietor of the common oven and be entitled to the tribute of a loaf for every batch of thirty-two loaves.” Boucher d’Argis cites decrees of 1563 and 1673 fixing the right of grinding in the common mills at a 16th and a 13th; it is computed that, at present, the miller deducts more than a tenth. [24]

This sort of institutions could exist only in the absence of the production of commodities; they hampered commerce and stood in the way of private enterprise; the revolutionary bourgeois of France pronounced them tainted with feudalism, and abolished them in 1790.

The CHURCH, which eventually became the exclusive property of the clergy, and is now closed to the public out of the hours of worship, was previously the joint property of the curate, the baron, and the peasants. The chancel and altar belonged to the lord and curate; they were bound to repair the woodwork, flooring, seats, etc., but the nave belonged to the peasants, who used it for their markets, communal assemblies, and dancing parties, or as a storehouse for their crops in case of need. [25] Mr. Thorold Rogers says that in all cases the Church was the common hall of the parish, and a fortress in time of danger, occupying the site of the stockade which had been built when the first settlers occupied the ground. [26] The church bells, likewise, belonged to the peasants, who set them pealing to announce their assemblies, or to apprise the villagers of fires or hostile attacks. In the judicial archives of the French provinces of the 17th and 18th centuries, we find frequent mention of judgments rendered against the bells for having warned the peasants of the arrival of the collectors of the salt-tax; they were sentenced to be taken down and whipped by the hands of the executioner, “notwithstanding that they had been consecrated and blessed by a most solemn ceremony, in which the oil of St. Chrism and myrrh and incense had been used and many prayers recited.” The Church was the house of God, elevated in the face of the feudal manor, and the feudal peasants gathered together under the shadow of it as around a strong and tender mother.

The TITHE raised on the harvests of the peasants and the nobles in favour of the Church, was, in the beginning, optional; just as it is in Ireland at the present hour; it was paid alike to the priest and sorcerer. Agobard, an archbishop of the 9th century, complains that the ecclesiastical tithe is paid with far less regularity than that accorded to the tempestarii, men endowed with the power to lay storms and conjure up foul weather. But from being optional the tithes became compulsory in virtue of the feudal adage, “no land without its tithes and burdens”; they were converted into a seignorial right, and accorded to lay lords and abbots, who re-sold them to other laymen. Discretionary at the outset, the tithes became obligatory; and, in the sequel, constituted an oppressive impost that no performance of services any longer authorised: even so is refined gold transmuted into vile copper!


Just as the seignorial obligations, which became onerous and iniquitous when the feudal barons had ceased to afford protection to their vassals, tenants, and serfs, had at one time been voluntarily acquiesced in; in like manner, the landed property of the nobles, – at first a military post, entrusted temporarily to a warrior, or, simply a right to a share in the agrarian divisions, – grew and expanded by dint of fraud and violence, and generally at the expense of the communal lands.

Marx, in his admirable 27th chapter of Capital, “on the expropriation of the agricultural population from the land,” to which I refer the reader, has described the prompt and brutal fashion in which the Scotch and English lords stole the possessions of the yeomen. “The great encroachers,” as Harrison, the editor of Holinshed’s Chronicle, calls them, went to work expeditiously. In the 15th century the immense majority of the population consisted of peasant proprietors, whatever was the feudal title under which their right of property was hidden. Macaulay calculates that “the number of proprietors was not less than 160,000, who with their families must have made up more than one-seventh of the whole nation. The average income of these small landlords was estimated at between 60 and 70 a year.”

The chief period of eviction began with the 16th century. The great feudal lords drove the peasantry by force from the land, to which they had the same feudal right as the lord himself, and seized upon the common lands. The rapid rise of the Flemish wool manufacture, and the corresponding rise in the price of wool in England, gave a direct impulse to these evictions. The sheep drove out the men.

“The shepe that were wont to be so meke and tame,” says Thomas More, “and so small eaters, now, as I heare say, be become so great devourers and so wylde, that they eate up and swallow downe the very men themselves.” [27]

In the last decade of the 17th century, the yeomanry, the class of independent peasants, were more numerous than the class of farmers. They had formed the backbone of Cromwell’s strength, and, even according to the confession of Macaulay, stood in favourable contrast to the drunken squires and to their servants, the county clergy, who had to marry their masters’ cast-off mistresses. About 1750 the yeomanry had disappeared, and so had in the last decade of the 18th century the last trace of the common land of the agricultural labourer. In the 19th century the very memory of the connection between the agricultural labourer and the communal property has, of course, vanished in England. The agricultural population has received not a farthing of compensation for the 3,511,770 acres of common land which, between 1800 and 1831 were stolen from them by parliamentary devices presented to the landlords by the landlords.

The last process of wholesale expropriation of the agricultural population from the soil is, finally, the so-called clearing of estates, i.e., the sweeping men off them. But what “clearing of estates” really and properly signifies we learn only in the promised land of modern romance, the Highlands of Scotland. There the process is distinguished by its systematic character, by the magnitude of the scale on which it is carried out at one blow (in Ireland, landlords have gone to the length of sweeping away several villages at once; in Scotland areas as large as German principalities are dealt with), finally by the peculiar form of property under which the embezzled lands were held.

The Highland Celts were organised in clans, each of which was the owner of the land on which it was settled. The representative of the clan, its chief or “great man,” was only the titular owner of this property, just as the Queen of England is the titular owner of all the national soil. When the English Government succeeded in suppressing the intestine wars of these “great men,” and their constant incursions into the lowland plains, the chiefs of the clans by no means gave up their time-honoured trade as robbers; they only changed its form. On their own authority they transformed their nominal right into a right of private property, and as this brought them into collision with their clansmen, they resolved to drive them out by open force. “A king of England might as well claim to drive his subjects into the sea,” says Professor Newman. This revolution, which began in Scotland after the last rising of the followers of the Pretender, can be followed through its first phases in the writings of Sir James Steuart and James Anderson. As an example of the method obtaining in the 19th century, the “clearing “ made by the Duchess of Sutherland will suffice here. This person, well instructed in economy, resolved, on entering upon her government, to effect a radical cure, and to turn the whole country, whose population had already been, by earlier processes of a like kind, reduced to 15,000, into a sheep walk. From 1814 to 1820 these 15,000 inhabitants, about 3,000 families, were systematically hunted and rooted out. All their villages were destroyed and burnt, all their fields turned into pasturage. British soldiers enforced the eviction, and came to blows with the inhabitants. One old woman was burnt to death in the flames of the hut which she refused to leave. Thus this fine lady appropriated 794,000 acres of land that had from time immemorial belonged to the clan. She assigned to the expelled inhabitants about 6,000 acres on the seashore – two acres per family. The 6,000 acres had until this time lain waste, and brought in no income to their owners. The duchess, in the nobility of her heart, actually went so far as to let these at an average rent of 2s. 6d. per acre to the clansmen who for centuries had shed their blood for her family. The whole of the stolen clan-land she divided into 29 great sheep farms, each inhabited by a single family, for the most part imported English farm servants. In the year 1835 the 15,000 Gaels were already replaced by 121,000 sheep. The remnant of the aborigines flung on the seashore tried to live by catching fish. They became amphibious and lived, as an English author says, half on land and half on water, and withal only half on both.

The plunder of the State lands on a large scale began with William of Orange.

“These estates were given away, sold at a ridiculous figure, or even annexed to private estates by direct seizure. All this happened without the slightest observation of legal etiquette. The crown lands thus fraudulently appropriated, together with the robbery of the Church estates, as far as these had not been lost again during the Republican Revolution, form the basis of the to-day princely domains of the English oligarchy. The bourgeois capitalists favoured the operation with the view, among others, to promoting free trade in land, extending the domain of modern agriculture on the large farm system, and to increasing their supply of the free agricultural proletarians ready to hand.”

After the restoration of the Stuarts the landed proprietors had carried by legal means an act of usurpation, effected everywhere on the Continent without any legal formality. In 1660 a House of Commons, in which the landlords were supreme, relieved their estates of all feudal dues, then amounting to about one half of the entire revenues of the State. Military service, purveyance, aids, reliefs, premier seisin, wardship, alienation, escheat, all disappeared in a day. In their place were substituted excise duties. By 12 Charles II, c.23 the great bulk of taxation was for the first time transferred from the land to the people, who have borne it ever since.

Landed property monopolised by the lords was exempted from all dues towards the State, as the lord had been discharged from all obligations towards his vassals and tenants: feudal property had been changed into capitalist property.

This transformation was accomplished in Great Britain in the midst of the most awful misery of the peasant class; the cultivators were expelled from the land by wholesale and made beggars. Their numbers became a social danger against which the most barbarous measures were taken. Legislation treated them as “ voluntary “ criminals, and assumed that it depended on their own will to go on working under the old conditions that no longer existed. In England this legislation began under Henry VII.

Henry VIII, 1530: “Beggars old and unable to work receive a beggar’s license. On the other hand, whipping and imprisonment for sturdy vagabonds. They are to be tied to a cart tail and whipped until the blood streams from their bodies, then to swear an oath to go back to their birth place, or to where they have lived the last three years, and to put themselves to labour.” What grim irony! In 27 Henry VIII the former statute is repeated, but strengthened with new clauses. For the second arrest for vagabondage the whipping is to be repeated and half the ear sliced off, but for the third relapse the offender is to be executed as a hardened criminal and enemy of the commonweal.”

Elizabeth, 1572: Unlicensed beggars above 14 years of age are to be severely flogged and branded on the left ear unless someone will take them into service for two years; in case of a repetition of the offence, if they are over 18 they are to be executed, unless someone will take them into service for two years; but for the third offence they are to be executed without mercy as felons. Similar statutes, 18 Elizabeth, c.13, and another of 1597, James I: Anyone wandering about and begging is declared a rogue and a vagabond. Justices of the Peace in petty sessions are authorised to have them publicly whipped, and for the first offence to imprison them for six months, for the second two years. Whilst in prison they are to be whipped as much and as often as the Justices of the Peace think fit. Incorrigible and dangerous rogues are to be branded with an “R” on the left shoulder and set to hard labour, and, if they are caught begging again, to be executed without mercy. – These statutes, legally binding until the beginning of the 18th century, were only repealed by 12 Ann, c.23.

Albeit not a single nation in Europe can boast of having raised an aristocracy that accomplished its work of monopolising the land with anything like the rapacity and ferociousness of Scotch and English landlords, nevertheless in all countries the peasant class has been in great part despoiled of its territorial possessions; and no means have been left untried to bring about that most laudable and lucrative consummation. Let me enumerate a few of the devices that were resorted to in France.

The feudal obligations, aids, and fines became so excessive that the peasants commuted for them by ceding to the lords a portion of the common lands. These cessions of territory, greedily hungered after by the feudal lords, would appear, well-nigh all of them, to have been obtained by the aid of artifice; the nobles corrupted a certain number of villagers who managed to constitute in their own persons the general assembly of the commune that voted the cessions; hence we come across royal ordinances in France which specify that for a cession of territory to be valid it must be voted in an assembly of all the inhabitants of the Commune.

The robbers of the communal lands did not invariably employ Jesuitical means; they often plundered with open brutality. In the 16th century, a period when the industrial and commercial bourgeoisie were rapidly developing, the communal lands were coveted at one and the same time by the nobles and by the bourgeois speculators. The towns were enlarged to meet the new requirements, and agriculture increased its yield. The development of agriculture was the great object of the speculators; under the pretext of giving increased extension to the arable lands, they induced the King to grant them, by royal edict, the right of bringing under culture the waste lands; they hastened to include in the category of waste lands the communal territories, and proceeded to wrest them from the peasants, who took up arms in their defence; and to vanquish whose resistance the speculators were compelled to appeal for aid to the armed force of the State.

The nobles had recourse to chicanery in order to win possession of the village territories; they pretended that the lands owned by the peasants did not correspond with their title deeds, which was perfectly true; they insisted on the verification of their claims, and confiscated what was held by imperfect titles for their own benefit. Upon occasion they proceeded after a revolutionary fashion; they destroyed the title-deeds which they had got hold of, and so disabled the peasants from establishing their rights to the fields now left without an owner; whereupon in virtue of the feudal adage, “pas de terre sans seigneur” the nobles seized upon the peasants’ territory. The autos da fé of proprietary titles, held by the peasants during the revolution of 1789, were in retaliation of the suppression of the peasant titles perpetrated by the nobility of the 16th century.

The forests were grabbed up more brutally: eschewing all legal formalities, the lords adjudged to themselves the ownership of the woods and underwood; they enclosed the forests and forbade hunting, and abolished the right of estovers; the right of taking wood for fuel and for the repairs of houses, fences, implements, etc. These encroachments of the nobles on the forest-lands, which were the common property of the village, gave rise to terrible revolts of the peasants.

The jacqueries [28] which broke out in the middle of the 14th century in the provinces of the North and the centre of France, were, in fact, occasioned by the pretensions of the nobles to forbid hunting and to interfere with the rights of common in the forests, and the enjoyment of the rivers. Similar conflicts arose in Germany, such as the famous revolt of the Saxons against the Emperor Henry II, and that of the Suabian peasants, who, in the time of Luther, took up arms against the lords who debarred them from the enjoyment of the forests. These peasant insurrections compelled the lords on several occasions to respect the ancient rights of common which consisted in the right – limited only by the peasant’s wants – to take wood and brushwood for hedging, firing, and repairing his implements (hedge-bote, fire-bote, and plough-bote); and in the right of common pasture, or the right to send his cows, horses, swine, and in some cases his goats, to graze on the commons throughout the year, the month of May alone excepted. So firmly rooted were these rights that Lapoix de Fréminville declared, in 1760, that even in the event of their abuse by the peasants they could not be taken away from them: “for the right of usage is perpetual, and being so, it is accorded alike to the actual inhabitants and to those who may come after them; one cannot strip of an acquired right even those who are as yet unborn.” But the revolutionary bourgeoisie of 1789 felt none of the feudal legist’s respect for the peasants’ rights, and abolished them for the benefit of the landed proprietor.

If the lords did, as a matter of fact, occasionally bow to the peasants’ rights of common, they nevertheless constantly declared that these were enjoyed on sufferance only; for they looked upon themselves as the proprietors of the forests; just as in later times they came to pretend to the ownership of the vassals’ lands. In the Middle Ages, when a free man, an alodial proprietor, commended himself to a lord, sought the protection, that is to say, of a powerful person, he presented him with a clod of turf, and vowed fealty and homage to him; yet he remained the master of his field. But in a number of provinces, e.g., in Brittany, the lord considered himself as the owner of the subsoil, while he recognised the peasants’ rights to the superficies, i.e., the crops, trees, buildings, etc. It is in virtue of such legal fictions that during the bourgeois period the nobles expropriated the peasants, descendants from the vassals, their ancestors. In Scotland, the robbery of the peasant property was perpetrated with such undisguised brutality as to arouse the public indignation. Karl Marx, in Capital, has related how the pious Duchess of Sutherland dispossessed the peasants whose fathers had built up the glory and the grandeur of her house.

Until the bourgeois revolution of 1789 had established private property in land, the landed estates in France, including those of the nobility, were subjected to rights of common, which periodically took from them the character of private property. Once the harvest was secured, the forests and arable land appropriated by the nobility became common property again, and the peasants were free to turn their cattle on them. The vines were liable to a similar usage. François de Neufchateau, in his Agronomical Voyage, 1806, cites a Memoire, published in 1763, by the Société d’Economie Rurale en Berne, in which it is complained that “after the vintage the vineyards are laid open to the sheep, who grass there as on common land.” But not only were the landlords bound to permit the pasturing on their lands of the village cattle; they were moreover forbidden to cultivate the soil according to their own methods; they were constrained to conform to the council of the elders, and required permission for the planting of their vines. A permission of this kind was refused a few years before the French Revolution to Montesquieu, greatly to the scandal of the political economists. The proprietor was not allowed to leave his lands uncultivated; for a royal ordinance of Louis XIV, enacted in 1693, and which but consecrated an ancient usage, authorises, – in the event of the owner not cultivating his land himself. – “any person to sow the same and to gather the fruits.”

Landed property, under the feudal system, was anything but free; not only was it burdened with obligations, but it belonged to the family collectively; the owner could not dispose of it at pleasure; he was only the usufructuary possessor whose mission it was to transmit his estates to his descendants. The Church estates, likewise, bore this character; they were the property of the Church, the great Catholic family; the abbots, monks, and priests who occupied the lands were merely the administrators – the very faithless administrators – of them. In order to claim immunity from impositions, the French clergy, down to the time of the revolution, pretended that ecclesiastical possessions ought not to be considered as ordinary property; that it was nobody’s property (res nullius), because it was sacred, religious property (res sacræ, res religiosæ). The revolutionary bourgeois took them at their word; they declared that the clergy were not the proprietors of the ecclesiastical estates, which belonged to the Church. Now, the Greek word ecclesia, whence is derived eglise (church), signifies the assembly, the reunion of all the faithful, which is the nation at large; wherefore the estates of the Church are national property. By the help of such subterfuge did the revolutionary bourgeois, like Henry VII. of England, lay hands upon the Church property and distribute amongst themselves the estates which belonged to the poor.

It is these obligations of feudal property which the political economists and Liberal historians attack with special virulence; obligations which were vestiges of the primitive communism that secured a measure of well-being to the peasants, and which they forfeited as soon as private property had superseded feudal property.

The bourgeois historians have invented the legend of the Revolution of 1789 bestowing the land upon the peasant, and freedom and happiness therewithal; whereas the plain truth is that the great Revolution stripped him of his rights of common and other secular rights of equal importance, delivering him up, defenceless, into the clutches of the usurers and middlemen; loading him with taxes and forcing him to enter into competition with the great landed proprietor, equipped with capital and machinery. The great bourgeois revolution was fraught with misery and ruin for the peasant. According to the official census, there were, in 1857, 7,846,000 landed proprietors in France; out of these 3,600,000 were so poor that they paid no direct contributions; the number of proprietors, great or small, was consequently reduced to 4,246,000. In 1879 the various questions were ventilated of an agricultural credit, of the application to the landlords of the law of bankruptcy, of the simplification of the law of procedure in expropriations; and an inquiry was instituted to determine the number of landed proprietors entitled to a share in the famous credit. La Republique Française, conducted by Gambetta, much interested in the question, stated in its issue of 25th August, 1879, that there existed in France only 2,826,000 landed proprietors, offering the necessary guarantees entitling them to a share in the credit. Thus from 1851 to 1879 the number of landed proprietors deserving of the name had dwindled to 1,420,000.

To dissipate the errors and falsehoods which the bourgeois writers have propagated respecting the status of the cultivator during the Feudal Period, and the benefits accruing to him from the Revolution, it suffices to compare the conditions of labour of the mediæval cultivator with those of the modern agricultural labourer. The researches made by men of learning, during the last 50 years, and the numerous documents discovered in different towns and convents, enable us to institute such a comparison.

L. Delisle, in his afore-cited study of the condition of the labouring classes in Normandy, points out how the lord shared the fortune of the labourer; for the rent was based upon the harvest. For instance, the tenants of the monks of St. Julien de Tours contributed the sixth sheaf; in other parts the tenant contributed the tenth sheaf; in still others the twelfth. Now, we may rummage the bourgeois world and shall not find a landlord contenting himself with a twelfth or even a sixth of the crops gathered on his estate. These conditions were not confined to a single province, for in the south of France, at Moissac, we meet with identical ones.

Enactments of 1212 and 1214 show us the monks of the Abbey of Moissac receiving only a third, a fourth, or even as little as a tenth of the crops harvested by the peasants who tilled their lands. Lagreze-Fossat, who has studied these enactments, remarks that “a mutual agreement was come to between the peasants and the monks, and the contribution of the produce demanded by the latter does not bear the character of an impost; it was debated beforehand, and freely consented to.” [29]

In the 11th and 12th centuries, when the vine was cultivated in Normandy, the landlords claimed only one half of the crops; the other half belonged to the cultivators. Nowadays, in the vine-growing countries, the peasant rarely tastes the wine he produces.

Guérard has discovered and published the account-book of the Abbey of St. Germain des Près; that precious document, which dates from the time of Charlemagne, enables us to study the lives of the serfs and peasants of the 9th century. The abbey lands were cultivated, not by individuals, but by collectivities of peasants, composed of from 20 to 30 adult persons living together, and the dues paid by them would appear ridiculously small to a modern farmer.

The abbey lands were divided into three categories, the manses ingenuiles, the manses lidiles, the manses serviles. At that period certain qualities were inherent in the land; it was seignorial, free, or servile: Guérard calculates that the peasants paid in labour and in kind 5s. 6d. per acre for the free lands, 8s. 1d. for the tributary lands, and 10s. for the servile lands. The cultivators employed on the abbatial lands, and who, to judge from their names, were mostly Germans, attained, with their families, to the respectable figure of 10,026. The condition of these peasants, considering their great numbers, must have been the normal condition of the cultivators; and what labourer of our day, I ask, would not gladly consent to barter his bourgeois landlord of the 19th for the monk of the 9th century, and hold servile lands at the rate of 10s. per acre? [30]

The condition of the English labourer was no worse.

“There is one very unpleasing remark,” says Hallam in his View of the State of Europe during the Middle Ages, “which everyone who attends to the subject of prices will be induced to make, that the labouring classes, especially those engaged in agriculture, were better provided with the means of subsistence in the reign of Edward III or of Henry VI than they are at present. In the fourteenth century, Sir John Cullum observes, a harvest man had fourpence a day which enabled him in a week to buy a comb of wheat; but to buy a comb of wheat a man must now (1784) work ten or twelve days. So under Henry VI, if meat was at a farthing-and-a-half the pound, which, I suppose, was about the truth, a labourer earning threepence a day, or eighteenpence in the week, could buy a bushel of wheat at six shillings the quarter, and twenty-four pounds of meat for his family. Several Acts of Parliament regulate the wages that might be paid to labourers of different kinds. Thus the Statute of Labourers in 1330 [1*] fixed the wages of reapers during harvest at threepence a day, without diet, equal to five shillings at present; that of 23 H. VI, c.12, in 1444, fixed the reapers’ wages at fivepence, and those of common workmen in building at threepence-halfpenny, equal to 6s. 8d. and 4s. 5d.; that of 11 H. VII, c.22, in 1496, leaves the wages of labourers in harvest as before, but rather increases those of ordinary workmen. The yearly wages of a chief hind or shepherd by the Act of 1444, were £1 4s., equivalent to about £20; those of a common servant in husbandry, 18s. 4d., with meat and drink; they were somewhat augmented by the Statute of 1496. Yet, although these wages are regulated as a maximum by Acts of Parliament, which may naturally be supposed to have had a view rather towards diminishing than enhancing the current rate, I am not fully convinced that they were not rather beyond it; private accounts at least do not always correspond with these statutable prices. And it is necessary to remember that the uncertainty of employment, natural to so imperfect a state of husbandry, must have diminished the labourers’ means of subsistence. Extreme dearth, not more owing to adverse seasons than to improvident consumption, was frequently endured. But after every allowance of this kind, I should find it difficult to resist the conclusion that, however the labourer has derived benefit from the cheapness of manufactured commodities and from many inventions of common utility, he is much inferior in ability to support a family to his ancestors three or four centuries ago.” [31]

When the French Revolution broke out in 1789 feudal property had not as yet succeeded in enfranchising itself from the manifold obligations which recalled its collectivist origin, and which prevented it from being converted into private property having the right to use and to abuse.



“Speak not such outrage.
Curse on the heart that cravens in the breast!
Fast in the place will we maintain our stand,
And blows and sword-thrusts shall be dealt by us.”

“Much evil must one suffer for his lord;
Endure alike the hard cold and high heat;
And for him must one lose his blood and bone!
Fight with thy lance, as I with Durendal,
My good sword that my king did give to me;
And if I die, who gets it well may say,
Right noble was the vassal owned the sword!”

Chanson de Roland, secs.xciii. and xciv

The song of Roland was frequently sung at the beginning of a battle. At Hastings, when the two hostile armies were face to face, “the Earl,” (William, Earl of Normandy), says William of Malmesbury, commenced the song of Roland, “that the warlike example of that man might stimulate the soldiers.” According to Wace, the Trouvère, the song was sung by the Norman, Taillefer:

“Taillefer ki moult bien cantout
Sur un cheval gi tost alout,
Devant le Due allout cantant
De Karlemaigne e de Rollant,
E d’Oliver e des vassals
Qui moururent en Roncevals.”

Thus Englished by Sir Walter Scott:

“Taillefer, who sang both well and loud,
Came mounted on a courser proud;
Before the Duke the minstrel sprung
And loud of Charles and Roland sung
Of Oliver and champions mo
Who died at fatal Roncevaux.”

As Taillefer sang he played with his sword, and, casting it high in the air, caught it again with his right hand, while all in chorus shouted the cry of “God aid us!”

2. H.S. Maine, Village Communities, p.84. This opinion was formulated, in his evidence before the Select Committee of the House of Commons which sat to consider the subject of enclosures, by a lawyer, Mr. Blamire, who, according to Mr. Maine, was “an official unusually familiar with English landed property in its less usual shapes.”

3. De Bello Gallico, V, sec.14.

4. A celebrated bourgeois economist, M. de Molinari, has innocently compared the financial enterprises of our times with the predatory expeditions of the Middle Ages. Both, indeed, aim at plunder, but with this difference, that whereas the feudal warrior staked his life, the capitalists who gnaw, rat-like, at the 10 and 20 per cent, interest, risk their capital alone, which they have taken good care not to create.

5. After the battle of Poictiers (1356) the soldiers, being out of employment, associated and made war on their own behalf. In 1360, after the Treaty of Bretigny, which restored King John of France – a prisoner in England – to liberty, the soldiers of the two armies were dismissed. They formed themselves into bands and took the field. One band operated in the north, another, and more considerable one, commanded by Talleyrand Perigord, descended into the valley of the Rhone, and after having ravaged La Provence passed through Avignon – where the Pope regaled the chiefs and gave absolution and a present of 500,000 ducats to the soldiers – ransacking the towns and laying waste the country.

6. Germania, 1, sec.xxviii

7. The customary of Béarn began with a haughty declaration of independence. “These are the customs of Béarn, which show that of old there existed no lords in Béarn. But the inhabitants, hearing praise of a knight of Bigorre, set forth in quest of him and made him a lord for the space of one year. But he being unwilling to conform to the customs; the popular assembly of Pau summoned him to respect the customs ... he, refusing to obey, was killed in the assembly.”

8. L. Deville, Etudes historiques sur Tarbes, Bulletin de la Société Académique des Hautes Pyréneés, sixieme année, deux livraison. 1861.

9. Gomme, Village Communities, p.254.

10. These pieces of land frequently bear the name of the trade of the exercise of which they were the reward.

“There are,” says Maine, “several English parishes in which certain pieces of land in the common field have from time immemorial been known by the name of a particular trade; and there is often a popular belief that nobody not following the trade can legally be the owner of the lot associated with it.”

11. Dr. Hearn, Aryan Households, p.150.

12. “The Basutos assemble every year to dig up and sow the field appropriated for the personal maintenance of their chief’s first wife. Hundreds of men, in a straight line, raise and lower their mattocks simultaneously and with perfect regularity. The entire village concurs in the maintenance of the chieftain.” Casalis, The Basutos.

13. In the Romance languages the original name of the feudal lord, the term baron, signified a strong man, a doughty warrior, which well indicates the essentially military character of feudalism. Vassal similarly bore the sense of brave, valiant.

14. Vitry, the legate of Innocent III, who in Germany and Belgium preached the crusade against the Albigenses (in 1208), writes: “The lords, despite their titles and dignities, continue to sally forth for prey and to play the robber and brigand, desolating entire regions by fire.” The manners of the clergy were neither better nor worse. The Archbishop of Narbonne, at the end of the twelfth century, strolled about the fields with his canons and archdeacons, hunting the wild beasts, plundering the peasants, and violating the women. He had in his pay a band of Aragonese routiers whom he employed to ransack the country. The bishops and abbots loved mightily, sings a troubadour, “fair women and red wine, fine horses and rich array; living in luxury, whereas our Lord was content to live in poverty.”

15. Montesquieu, L’Esprit des lois.

16. Cited by H.F. Rivière in his Histoire des Institutions de l’Auvergne, 1874.

17. B. Guérard, Polyptique de l’Abbé Irminon, section 145.


“A right good cavalier, the Archbishop,
None better on the earth, under the sky;
Expert in fight alike with lance and spear.”

*  *  *

“The French cry out: ‘Here be great bravery;
The Cross is in safe keep with the Archbishop;
Would God that Charles had more knights like to him!’”

19. Latruffe Montmeylian, Da Droit des Communes sur les biens Communaux, Paris 1825. Montmeylian is one of the rare French writers who had the courage to defend communal property against the rapacity of the capitalists.

20. Bordelage is a feudal system of tenure resembling métayage, inasmuch as the rent for the land is paid not in money, but in a portion of the produce. This tenure has been general in all feudal Europe; in France it lasted till the Revolution of 1789. Guérard found it flourishing in the 9th century, on the lands of the Abbey of St. Germain des Près, Mr. L. Gomme, in his Village Communities, describes similar peasant associations in England, Scotland, and Ireland.

21. In the donation made in 728 by Count Eberhard to the monastery of Merbach, mention is made of 40 workwomen employed in the geniciæ.

22. “Let the freeman enjoy liberty and go three times a year into the count’s service,” ordains the Customary of Bigorre.

23. The term signifies the compulsory usage of a thing belonging to the lord on condition of a due.

24. Boucher d’Argis. Code rural, Ch.xv, Des banalités.

25. A synodical statute of 1529 prohibits “To hold or suffer in the church or cemeteries here any festivals, dances, games, merry-makings, representations, markets, and other illicit assemblies; for the church is ordained solely to serve the Lord, and not for suchlike follies.” The naive believers of the Middle Ages saw no harm in dancing, and representing their mysteries, in the house of the Lord.

26. Thorold Rogers, Economical Interpretation of History.

27. Utopia, translated by Robinson. Ed. Arber, London 1869.

28. Jacqueries were insurrections of the peasants; a term derived from the insulting epithet of Jacques Bonhomme applied to the peasants by the nobles.

29. A. Lagreze Fossat, Etudes Historiques sur Moissac, 1872. Moissac is a small town in the Department of Tarn et Garonne, of considerable importance in the Middle Ages.

30. Polyptique de l’Abbé Irminon on dénombrement des manses’ serfs et revenus de l’Abbaye de St. Germain des Près sous le regne de Charlemagne. Publié par Guérard, 1844.

31. The Student’s History of the Middle Ages, Henry Hallam. Adapted by William Smith, Part II, chap.ix, pp.566-7.

Note by MIA

1*. “1830” in the published version of the book, but from the context this seems unlikely.

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Last updated on 14.9.2008