Mark Starr: A Worker Looks At History

Chapter 4: Feudalism

4. Feudalism.

IN the Anglo—Saxon development, as already shown, chattel—slavery seems to have been omitted; the number of slaves or bondmen was always very small. Feudalism arose among other peoples, not only through warfare, but from the impoverishment of the free—men and the unprofitableness of the huge farms worked by slave labour, this latter tendency resulting in manumission and in allowing the slave to buy his liberty. In other cases, freemen would give up their lands to some prominent chief in order to secure his protection and patronage, and, perhaps, become part of his body guard; or give them to the Church and escape the precariousness of the times by becoming monks. Thus with the growth of big estates would come the need of a system whereby they could be held and worked by the former freemen and the liberated slaves.

Again the feudal system could be instituted by conquest. The successful chief would portion out the conquered land among his followers and force the conquered people to become their serfs. Before attempting to describe Norman Feudalism and its structure in England a few remarks upon the history of its introducers will not be out of place.

The Northmen.—The home—land of the Northmen was Scandinavia. They belonged to the Teutonic branch of the Indo—European stock. In the early days of a people's history we find that its population increases faster than the means of subsistence, a fact which to Malthus drew attention. [It may be said in passing that, though this Malthusian theory of population may be true in the early stages of development, it is untrue at the present time, for while the rate of increase of population is declining, the productive forces are being more highly developed than ever, and no mouth or stomach need be empty through scarcity of the means of subsistence.]This factor, and the pressure of other peoples moving west, caused the Anglo—Saxons to come further west, while another part of the same race moved northwards, and became known as Northmen.

We begin to hear about the doings of the Northmen in the 8th and 9th centuries, and very soon they became the terror of the civilised world. Remembering Buckle's theory, it is interesting to notice how the natural environment determined the character of this people. The sterility of the soil, coupled with abundant opportunities for hunting and fishing afforded by the many woods and rivers, made the Northmen a race of hunters and fishers. The making of clothes, and the little tillage which may have been practised in the more fertile parts of the land, were probably the work of the women. The nomadic hunting life; the familiarity with the sea which fishing, extending farther and farther from the shore, would entail; the development of shipping and of the adventuresome spirit begot by seafaring; the overcrowding at home; and the profits of trading with, and the attraction of the booty of, foreign lands—all these things helped to produce that piratical and trading nation which sailed the Mediterranean, plundering the towns upon its shores and trading with the Arabs; which made forcible settlements in Britain and France; colonised Iceland and Greenland, and discovered America. Their chief ideal was to be brave—a quality very necessary to their mode of life. Their gods were deified hero—warriors; their heaven a place of heroic conflicts interrupted only by the warrior's feast; their hell (note the contrast with our own) a place of cold and darkness, where those who had not died as happy warriors were destined to go.

The size of the bands of these raiders grew larger. We have noticed how by their influence and settlement on the East Coast of England they stimulated towns and trade. At the commencement of the 10th century a large band, under Rollo, invaded France. Charles the Simple, not being able to drive them away, allowed them a portion of the land, which became the North—men's land, or Normandy, and was parcelled out among Rollo and his followers on feudal tenure, which system of tenure was already in existence in France.

The Norman Conquest of England.—Taking advantage of the division among the English, and raising an army by promises of plunder, William the Norman carried out the Norman Conquest of 1066. The death of the chief English barons in the fighting and abortive risings which occurred, and his powerful position as leader of a conquering army, placed England entirely in William's hands. Thus he was able completely to re—organize the land—holding system, and to make himself an absolute overlord. In distributing the land among his followers he tried to prevent the lords from becoming too powerful, for he had seen in France and Normandy how the barons, being only a little less than the king, would combine and rebel against him; so he would not give adjacent manors to one lord, but spread them about in different parts of the country.

The Domesday Book.—Most of our information about the structure of the feudal system is derived from the Domesday Book. It received this name because it was drawn up with such careful accuracy, and based upon such minute investigation and sworn evidence that there could be no appeal from its findings—any more than a person could appeal from that Last Judgment of Domesday. Supposed to have been compiled in 1085—7, the Domesday Book gave William the information he required for the purposes of taxation and of military defence. It detailed the extent of the manors, the character of the land, how it was held (whether directly by the lord, or sub—let), the rateable value of the land, the number and status of its cultivators, and the ilumber of cattle and ploughs it possessed. Gibbins' Industrial History furnishes examples of entries in the Domesday Book, and he also sums up its conclusions as to the number of manors, the proportions of waste, arable, and pasture land, and gives many interesting figures which show that 75 per cent of a population of two millions were engaged in agriculture. Leaving the student with this text—book to read the further details up for himself, we will pass on to the last heading of this Outline.

The Feudal Structure.— One writer has described the Feudal System as "a vast hierarchy of rights and duties an unbroken chain from the King down to the serf." In the Anglo—Saxon development we saw how the temporary war—chief became a permanent king, and how petty kings fought each other till one of them triumphed. But under Feudalism even the King did not possess absolute ownership of the land. Just as the serf was bound to obey the lord of the manor, and the lord of the manor his lord the King, so the King was held in theory to be responsible to God for the good government and defence of his subjects. This theory was taught by the Roman Church, which in that superstitious age had immense power, and the fear of excommunication made even kings tremble. The Church was the channel through which the will of God was made known to earthly rulers. Not that her power rested solely on her monopoly of Divine inspiration, for many of the ecclesiastical barons outshone the secular barons in the magnificence of their retinue, in their lavish hospitality, and in the number of tetainers that they, as members of the Church truly militant, led into battle.

It does not come within our present scope to show how the above theory was departed from in practice; how Church and King quarrelled for supremacy; how the barons would league against the King or fight among themselves; how the rights of the serf to protection were neglected; or how combinations, born of adversity, were made when the barons would unite for a while with the towns against the King, or the King use the rising class in the towns to plunder the Church and weaken the barons. These developments will receive treatment when we deal with the fall of Feudalism.

The Feudal System was based upon the land, which was then the chief means of production. Amid the many classes referred to by historians, two stand out most prominently—a class which could own and part with land, and a class which was bound to the land, being able neither to possess nor part with it. The tenants—in—chief —the lords— had to render to the King (1) Military services, i.e., men for war; build roads and bridges, and make fortifications; (2) The Geld. This was a tax for emergencies. In addition, they had to pay the tithe to the Church. The villeins and the cottars were bound to the estate upon which they were born. They had to render to their lord a rent of services which was composed of (1) week work, and (2) boon work, the former being so many days per week, and the latter being certain days at fixed times in the year. Sometimes rent in kind had to be paid at certain seasons, e.g., one quarter of seed wheat at Michaelmas.

Books.—Gibbins (Period II., Chap 1) contains an excellent description of a manor village, its inhabitants, and their conditions, besides a diagram of a typical manor and all the other details of the Feudal System. We can best understand the position of the serf by comparing it with the position of other types of workers, i.e., the chattel slave and the modern wage worker, and this comparison will occupy the next Outline.