Mark Starr: A Worker Looks At History


8. The Fall of Feudalism.

'IN the Fourth Outline details of the Feudal System were given. Two of the intervening Outlines have been occupied with the development of trade and towns, and with information about the early traders and producers living in those towns. We have now to turn to Feudalism-which was essentially rural in its character-and endeavour to see how it was- affected, and how its decay was caused by the progress of new forces having their chief centres in the towns.

In Feudal times, the vast hierarchies of Church and State were based upon the land. Agriculture was the sole industry and production was carried on for direct consumption. The exploitation of the serf was undisguised, taking the form of services in rent and kind. Feudalism, having its origin in the domination of the fighter over the farmer, necessarily preserved, as its source of power over the agriculturist and as the only method by which it could "carry on," its military organization. Our present task is to outline the chief factors which hastened its passing. The rise of commerce, the development of handicraft and the division of labour, the evolution of the commodity (i.e., a product produced primarily for exchange) from the product produced for direct consumption-these are some of the things to which we shall briefly refer.

Commutation of Services.-The substitution of money payments or rents for the previous services and pay ments in kind rendered by the villeins and cottars to their feudal lord, plays an important part in the fall of Feudalism. We have, in previous Outlines, shown how the towns purchased their liberty from feudal dues;. they arrived at independence earlier than the country; and by the aid of the kings, who needed their help. against powerful barons, they procured charters of self- government. The need of kings and nobles for money was the opportunity for the towns to win their freedom and soon, by the growth of commerce, luxury increased.

The feudal lords became willing to accept money instead of services from the country-dwellers also. Adam Smith describes the process thus :- "The inhabitants of trading: cities, by importing the improved manufactures and expensive luxuries of richer countries, afforded some food to the vanity of the great proprietors, who eagerly purchased them with great quantities of the rude produce of their own lands." It is easy to see how this would pave the way for the commutation of services; for the feudal lord would think to secure more luxuries by receiving definite sums of money from his feudal dependants than he would secure by the exchange of the products produced by their enforced labour upon his own demesne.

The villeins and the cottars, too, would not be opposed to this commutation of their services; for they naturally connected the liberty of the townspeople with their possession of, and payments in, money, and the serfs thought to secure the same liberty for themselves. Again "the week-work" and the "boon-work" were elastic, and apt to be increased as the lord's appetite for luxuries grew. The cottar, with his small land holding and with more free time at his disposal, gradually developed into the wage-labourer, and the villein became a farmer, paying a money rent, often for stock, as well as land.

The Export of English Wool.-In dealing with the Rise of the Merchant Class and the Creation of the Proletariat in future Outlines, we shall have occasion to deal with the development of wool-growing more fully. But as early as 1236 A.D., we get examples of enclosures made for this purpose, and very soon all the waste land of the manor was claimed by the lord. Large quantities of English wool were exported in return for foreign manufactures. Later happenings, with which we shall deal, hastened this tendency to displace men by sheep and to break up the feudal relations.

Effects of War.-The strong hand of the Norman kings kept the barons in check for a while in England. In the Civil War of Stephen and Matilda, however, they became again lawless and powerful, and they exercised their feudal profession of fighting in suicidal conificts. In the latter half of the 15th century (1450-1500) in the Wars of the Roses, the barons again obligingly hastened their own extermination. The power of the towns and the king grew greater. The first Tudor monarch, Henry VII, seeking to establish himself firmly, was able to make the remaining barons disband their little armies of retainers. This created many wandering vagrants and robbers, and also increased the number of the town dwellers. Not only internal wars helped on the decay of Feudalism; external wars and foreign expeditions had the same effect. The Crusades, or Wars of the Cross, which lasted for more than two centuries, beginning in 1095 A.D., are a notable example of the latter.[Prior to the Crusaders the mild rule of the Saracens had allowed Christian pilgrims to visit Jerusalem, and had allowed European merchants free access to the Eastern trade routes. The sea route to the East had not then been discovered. The coming of fanatical caliphs and the invasion of Palestine by the Turks blocked up these vital trade routes, and made pilgrimage ,difficult and unsafe. Ordinarily, the Church tried to restrain the warlike ardour of the feudal barons. On this occasion, however, they found a common cause. The feudal fighting fire languishing for an outlet in Europe, was now encouraged, or organized and dedicated by the Church to the high and noble aim ,of restoring to the Church, from the blasphemous infidels, her sacred places. The traders, especially of the Italian cities, having their sources of wealth destroyed; the feudal fighters-needing more lands to conquer, and being eager to plunder the fabled wealth of the East: and the all-powerful Church, feeling that her prestige would be destroyed if the infidels' success was permanent, united and formed a strong combination. This was the foundation upon which rested the success of Peter the Hermit's eloquence, which caused peasant and prince, young and old, to rush forth to defend the Faith. As the Crusades proceeded, their economic causes became more manifest. No lasting settlements were ever made in Palestine because of the internal rivalry and jealousy of the feudal crusaders, each wishing to secure land and booty. It is not, however, our purpose to follow the various phases of the Crusades until they finally petered out in the 14th century; but to notice that the Crusades and other foreign wars had the effect of weakening Feudalism, for "while princely adventurers and their turbulent followers left Europe to seek for fame and jconquest in the East, astute monarchs (and the towns) were establishing the reign of law in the West."]

Effects of New Methods of War.-New methods of war, too, played a part in the decline of Feudalism. The splendid feudal finery became obsolete in competition with trained bands of mercenaries who used; at first, the long-bow, and, later, firearms. The romance of robbery disappeared when the merchants were able to secure efficient protection by engaging base-born churls. With the invention of gunpowder and its use- in the 14th and 15th centuries, armour and castle strong holds were of little avail. Brain began its triumph over brawn, and proceeded until to-day warfare is practically carried on by spectacled chemists. Engels, on p. 195 of his Landmarks in Scientific Socialism, when endeavouring to prove the economic nature of force, writes thus :-

The introduction of firearms not only produced a revolution in the methods of warfare, but also in the relations oft master and subject. Trade and money are concomitants of gunpowder and firearms, and these former imply the bourgeoisie. Fire arms from the very first were the bourgeois instruments of warfare employed on behalf of the rising monarchy against the feudal nobility. The hitherto unassailable stone castles of the nobles submitted to the cannon of the burghers, the fire of their guns pierced the mail armour of the knights. The supremacy of the nobility fell with the heavily armed cavalry of the nobility.

The Black Death.- This is one of the most important and terrible landmarks in English history. It was a calamity widespread in its devastation and fatal in its effects, for it is reckoned to have caused the death of half England's population. In dealing with other factors we have tried to show that the tendencies of the age were gradually breaking up the Feudal system. The Black Death rapidly hastened the development of these tendencies. It might well be compared in its hastening of development to the present war, which is stimulating, not introducing, the application of science and machinery and the dilution of labour, to production.

In 1316 a bad harvest caused a famine of wheat, resulting in some loss of life from starvation. After the country had recovered from this, a fairly prosperous time ensued till the coming of the pestilence in 1348. It swept through the land with such terrible effects that it threatened to wipe out all the inhabitants. "About half the entire population was swept away. No age was safe, no rank was immune, for the habits and homes of the people of all classes were then indescribably filthy; but the common folk suffered most."

The economic effects of the Black Death as they helped on the decay of Feudalism concern us most. They were :-(l) A dearth of labour. The workers, suffering most from the ravages of the pestilence, were small in number. (2) A consequent rise in wages. These were double what they had been in 1347. The law of "supply and demand" operated in the labourer's favour. The landowners had either to pay the wages demanded or lose their labourers, and allow their land to go to rack and ruin. The landlords were loud in their complaints. Before Parliament met, the King issued Proclamations ordering no person, under severe penalties, to give or take higher wages than had obtained before the pestilence; and when Parliament met in 1350 it passed the First Statute of Labourers confirming the King's proclamations with all its penalties.

In vain, however, did the legislative Canutes attempt to keep back the tide of economic development. The farmers had either to lose their crops or pay the high -wages demanded for their gathering; and despite Acts of Parliament high wages were paid. The Black Death hit the large landowner the hardest because the increased cost of labour having to be paid by his tenants as well as by himself, he dared not raise his tenants' rent. Thus he would let out more of his land and stock to peasant farmers, who, by using the labour of their families, escaped paying the increased wages. The Black Death, in making the wage-labourer's position better and in hastening the development of the tenant-farmer, was a big nail in Feudalism's coffin. But the big landlords did not accept the new situation without a struggle. They remembered how in the old days they had been able to command the labour of the serf as a right; and they regretted that they, by commutation, had allowed this right to be destroyed. Aided by the lawyers-their friends then as now-they attempted to re-enforce the old "week-work" and "boon-work" and to place the labourer back again in the serf status. The friction and indignation which resulted from this attempt gave birth to an uprising which we must briefly describe.

The Peasant Revolt of 1381.-Many superficial reasons have been put forward to explain this outbreak, which was full of significance in showing how high wages and independence had engendered, in the once servile serfs, a spirit which would not brook the revival of the old exactions. As,later, the Indian Mutiny was falsely said to have been caused by the greasing of cartridges with a certain fat, so the Peasants' Revolt was falsely said to have been caused by the insulting behaviour of the Poll-Tax gatherer to Wat Tyler's daughter. Even the friction caused by the Poll-Tax itself hardly provides an sufficient cause, as it had been gathered before without any disturbance. These things may have precipitated the Revolt; they may have been the match to the train of powder already laid; but the true cause is the one assigned above.

The comparative economic independence of the workers voiced itself in the revolutionary ideas and expressions of the times. The peasants received much help and encouragement from Wyclif's "poor priests." "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" So ran the rhyme, recalling primitive equality. These priests did not shrink from denouncing the upper classes and comparing their lot with the lot of those who laboured. Readers are referred to the chapters listed and to such fiction as William Morris' The Dream of John Ball, and Florence Converse's Long Will for further information.

They, too, will tell the story of how the whole country blazed, with Kent, where men had been longest quit of feudal tenure, as the centre of the revolt; of how the insurgents possessed themselves of London; of how they petitioned the King that "we be forever never named as villeins"; and of how they were soothed by false promises-the pledges of princes as of politicians being, even in those days, like the proverbial piecrust- and persuaded to return home, after which the Revolt was crushed.

But in spite of this apparent failure, the peasants were never reduced to the old Feudal bondage again, and a time of prosperity for them, known as the Golden Age, followed. (See Gibbins, pp. 79 and 80, for details as to wages and cost of living). We shall follow in succeeding Outlines the disappearance of this Golden Age. Only about a hundred years elapsed, and in 1593 "the work of a whole year would not supply the labourer with the quantity which in 1495 the labourer earned with fifteen weeks' labour" (Thorold Rogers).

We have noticed some of the factors which played a part in the passing of Feudalism-the growth of its own inherent germs of decay. We have seen legislation and coercion powerless in the face of economic development, and those who attempted to stand still, or move backward, when economic development cried "Forward," condemned to a futile, hopeless endeavour.

BOOKS.-Gibbins, Period III., especially Chaps. IV. and V. Waxner, Chap. VI. Marx's Capital. Vol. I. Chaps. XXVII. and XXVIII.