Front Page Titles (by Subject) (c) the political and social disintegration of the primitive feudal state - The State
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
(c) the political and social disintegration of the primitive feudal state - Franz Oppenheimer, The State 
The State: Its History and Development viewed Sociologically, authorized translation by John M. Gitterman (New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1922).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
(c) the political and social disintegration of the primitive feudal state
Space forbids our detailing the innumerable shadings under which the patriarchal-aristocratic (in some cases plutocratic) mixture of form of government in the primitive feudal state is shown in either an ethnographic, historical or juristic survey. This is likewise of the greatest importance for the subsequent development.
It is indifferent how much power the ruler may have had at the beginning, an inevitable fate breaks down his power in a short while; and does this, one may say, the faster, the greater that power was, i. e., the larger the territory of the primitive feudal state of higher grade.
Taking into account the process already set forth, which, through the occupation and settlement of unused lands by means of newly acquired slaves, made for the increase of power of the separate nobles, a result came about which might prove uncomfortable for the central power. Mommsen in speaking of the Celts says: “When in a clan numbering about eighty thousand armed men, a single chieftain could appear at convocation with ten thousand followers, exclusive of his serfs and debtors, it becomes clear that such a noble was rather an independent prince than a mere citizen of his clan.”108 And the same may apply to the “Heiu” of the Somali, where a great landed proprietor maintained hundreds of families in dependence on his lands, “so that conditions in Somaliland tend to recall those existing in mediæval Europe during feudal times.”109
Although such a preponderance of isolated territorial magnates can come about in the feudal state of low development, it nevertheless reaches its culmination in the feudal state of higher grade, the great feudal state; this happens by reason of the increased power given to the landlords by the bestowal of public official functions.
The more the state expands, the more must official power be delegated by the central government to its representatives on the borders and marches, who are constantly threatened by wars and insurrectionary outbreaks. In order to preserve his bailiwick in safety for the state, such an official must be endowed with supreme military powers, joined with the functions of the highest administrative officials. Even should he not require a large number of civil employees, he still must have a permanent military force. And how is he to pay these men? With one possible exception, to be noted hereafter, there are no taxes which flow into the treasury of the central government and then are poured back again over the land, since these presuppose an economic development existing only where money is employed. But in communities having a system of payments in kind, such as these “territorial states” all are, there are no taxes payable in money. For that reason, the central government has no alternative but to turn over to the counts, or border wardens, or satraps, the income of its territorial jurisdiction. Such an official, then, receives the dues of the subjects, determines when and where forced labor is to be rendered, receives the deodands, fees and penalties payable in cattle, etc.; and in consideration of these must maintain the armed force, place definite numbers of armed men at the disposal of the central government, build and maintain highways and bridges, feed and stable the ruler and his following, or his “royal messengers,” and finally, furnish a definite “Sergeantry” consisting of highly valuable goods, easily transported to the court, such as horses, cattle, slaves, precious metals, wines, etc.
In other words, he receives an immensely large fief for his services. If previously he was not, he now becomes the greatest man in his country, though before he probably was the most powerful landlord in his official district. He will hereafter do exactly what his equals in rank are doing, although they may not have his official position; that is to say, he will, only on a larger scale, continue to settle new lands with ever newly recruited serfs. By this he increases his military strength; and this must be wished for and aided by the central government. For it is the fate of these states, that they must fatten those very local powers, that are to engulf them.
Conditions arise which enable the warden of the marches to impose the terms of his military assistance, especially in the inevitable feuds which arise over the right of succession to the central government. Thereby he obtains further valuable concessions, especially the formal acknowledgment of the heritability of his official fief, so that office and lands come to be held by an identical tenure. By this means, he gradually becomes almost independent of the central authority, and the complaint of the Russian peasant, “The sky is high up and the Tsar is far off,” tends to become of universal application. Take this characteristic example from Africa: “The empire of Lunda is an absolute feudal state. The chieftains (Muata, Mona, Muene) are permitted independent action in all internal affairs, so long as it pleases the Muata Jamvo. Usually, the great chieftains, living afar, send their caravans with their tribute once a year to the Mussumba; but those living at too great a distance, sometimes for long periods omit making any payments of their tribute; while similar chiefs in the neighborhood of the capital forward tribute many times a year.”110
Nothing can show more plainly than this report, how, because of inadequate means of transportation, extent of distance becomes politically effective in these states loosely held together and in a state of payment in kind. One is tempted to say that the independence of the feudal masters grows in proportion to the square of their distance from the seat of the central authority. The crown must pay more and more for their services, and must gradually confirm them in all the sovereign powers of the state, or else permit their usurpation of these powers after they have seized them one after the other. Such are heritability of fiefs, tolls on highways and commerce, (in a later stage the right of coinage), high and low justice, the right to exact for private gain the public duties of repair of ways and bridges (the old English trinodis necessitas) and the disposal of the military services of the freemen of the country.
By these means, the powerful frontier wardens gradually attain an ever greater, and finally a complete, de facto independence, even though the formal bond of feudal suzerainty may for a long time apparently keep together the newly developed principalities. The reader, of course, recalls instances of these typical transitions; all mediæval history is one chain of them; not only the Merovingian and Carolingian Empires, not only Germany, but also France, Italy, Spain, Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, as well as Japan and China,111 have passed through this process of decomposition, not only once, but repeatedly. And this is no less true of the feudal states of Mesopotamia: great empires follow each other, acquire power, burst asunder time after time, and again are re-united. In the case of Persia, we are expressly told: “Separate states and provinces, by a successful revolt, obtained freedom for a longer or shorter time, and the ‘great king’ at Susa did not always have the power to force them to return to their obedience; in other states, the satraps or warlike chieftains ruled arbitrarily, carrying on the government faithlessly and violently, either as independent rulers or tributary under-kings of the king of kings. The Persian world-empire went to its disintegration an agglomeration of states and lands, without any general law, without ordered administration, without uniform judicial system, without order and enforcement of law, and without possibility of help.”112
A similar fate overtook its neighbor in the valley of the Nile: “Princes spring from the families of the usurpers, free landlords, who pay land-taxes to nobody but to the king, and rule over certain strips of land, or districts. These district princes govern a territory specifically set apart as pertaining to their official position, and separate from their family possessions.
“Later successful warlike operations, perhaps filling in the gap between the Ancient and the Middle (Egyptian) Empire, together with the gathering in of captives of the wars, who could be utilized as labor motors, brought a more stringent exploitation of the subjects, a definite determination of the tributes. During the Middle Empire, the power of the princes of the clans rose to an enormous height, they maintained great courts, imitating the splendor of the royal establishment.”113 “With the decline of the royal authority during a period of decay, the higher officials use their power for personal aims, in order to make their offices hereditary within their families.”∗114
But the operation of this historical law is not restricted to the “historical” peoples. In speaking of the feudal states of India, Ratzel states: “Even beyond Radshistan, the nobles often enjoyed a great measure of independence, so that even in Haiderabad, after the Nizam had acquired the sole rule over the country, the Umara or Nabobs maintained troops of their own, independently of the army of the Nizam. These smaller feudatories did not comply with the increased demands of modern times as regards the administration of Indian states as often as did the greater princes.”115
In Africa finally, great feudal states come and pass away, as do bubbles arising and bursting from the stream of eternally similar phenomena. The powerful Ashanti empire, within one and a half centuries, has shriveled to less than one-fifth of its territory;116 and many of the empires that the Portuguese encountered have since disappeared without leaving a trace of their existence. And yet these were strong feudal powers: “Stately and cruel negro empires, such as Benin, Dahomy or Ashanti, resemble in many respects ancient Peru or Mexico, having in their vicinity politically disorganized tribes. The hereditary nobility of the Mfumus, sharply separated from the rest of the state, had mainly the administration of the districts, and together with the more transitory nobility of service, formed in Loango strong pillars of the ruler and his house.”117
But whenever such a state, once powerful, has split into a number of territorial states either de facto or juristically independent, the former process begins anew. The great state gobbles up the smaller ones, until a new empire has arisen. “The greatest territorial magnates later become emperors,” says Meitzen laconically of Germany.118 But even this great demesne vanishes, split up by the need of equipping warlike vassals with fiefs. “The Kings soon found that they had donated away all their belongings; their great territorial possessions in the Delta had melted away,” says Schneider (l. c. page 38) of the Pharaohs of the sixth dynasty. The same causes brought about like effects in the Frankish Empire among both Merovingians and Carolingians; and later in Germany in the case of the Saxon and Hohenstaufen Emperors.119 Additional references are unnecessary, as every one is familiar with these instances.
In a subsequent part of this treatise, we shall examine into the causes that finally liberated the primitive feudal state from this witch’s curse, this circling from agglomeration to disintegration without end. Our present task is to take up the social side of the process, as we have already taken up the historical phase of it. It changes the articulation of classes in the most decisive manner.
The common freemen, the lower strata of the dominating group, are struck with over powering force. They sink into bondsmen-ship. Their decay must go along with that of the central power; since both, allied one might say, by nature, are menaced simultaneously by the expanding power of the great territorial lords. The crown controls the landed magnate so long as the levy of the common freemen of the district is a superior force to his guards, to his “following.” But a fatal need, already set forth, impels the crown to deliver over the peasants to the landed lordling, and from the moment when the county levy has become weaker than his guards, the free peasants are lost. Where the sovereign powers of the state are delegated to the territorial magnate, i. e., where he has developed more or less into an independent lord of the region, the overthrow of the liberties of the peasants is carried out, at least in part, under the color of law, by forcing excessive military services, which ruin the peasants, and which are required the more often as the dynastic interests of the territorial lord require new lands and new peasants, or by abusing the right to compulsory labor, or by turning the administration of public justice into military oppression.
The common freemen, however, receive the final blow either by the formal delegation or by the usurpation of the most important powers of the crown, the disposition of unoccupied lands or “commons.” Originally, this land belonged to all the “folk” in common; i. e., to the freemen for common use; but in accordance with an original custom, probably universal, the patriarch enjoys disposal of it. This right of disposition passes to the territorial magnate with the remaining royal privileges—and thus he has obtained the power to strangle any few remaining freemen. He now declares all unoccupied lands his property, and forbids their settlement by free peasants, while those only are permitted access who recognize his superior lordship; i. e., who have commended themselves to him, or are his serfs.
That is the last nail in the coffin of the common freemen. Heretofore their equality of possessions has been in some way guaranteed. Even if a peasant had twelve sons, his patrimony was not split up, because eleven of them broke new hides of land in the commons of the community, or else in the general land not yet distributed to other villages. That is henceforth impossible; hides tend to divide where large families grow up, others are united when heir and heiress marry: henceforth there come into existence “laborers,” recruited from the owners of half, a quarter, or even an eighth of a hide who help work a larger area. Thus the free peasantry splits into rich and poor; this begins to loosen the bond which hitherto had made the bundle of arrows unbreakable. When, therefore, some comrade is overwhelmed by the exactions of the lord and has become his liegeman, or if bond peasants are settled among the original owners, either to occupy some hide vacated by the extinction of the family or fallen into the hands of the lord because of the indebtedness of its occupant, then every social cohesion is loosened; and the peasantry, split apart by class and by economic contrasts, is handed over without power of resistance to the magnate.
On the other hand, the result is the same where the magnate has no usurped regalian powers of the state. In such cases, open force and shameless violation of rights accomplish the same ends. The ruler, far off and impotent, bound to rely on the good will and help of the violators of law and order, has neither the power nor the opportunity of interference.
There is hardly any need of adducing instances. The free peasantry of Germany were put through the process of expropriation and declassification at least three times. Once it happened in Celtic times.120 The second overthrow of the free peasants of the old German Empire took place in the ninth and tenth centuries. The third tragedy of the same form began with the fifteenth century, in the countries formerly Slavic, which they had conquered and colonized.121 The peasants fared worse in those lands, in the “republics of nobles,” where there was no monarchical central authority, whose community of interests with their subjects tended to deprive oppression of its worse features. The Celts in the Gaul of Cæsar’s time are one of the earliest examples. Here “the great families exercised an economic, military and political preponderance. They monopolized the leases of the lucrative rights of the state. They forced the common freemen, overwhelmed by the taxes which they had themselves imposed, to borrow of them, and then, first as their debtors, afterward legally as their serfs, to surrender their liberty. For their own advantage they developed the system of followers: i. e., the privilege of the nobility to have about them a mass of armed servants in their pay, called ambacti, with whose aid they formed a state within a state. Relying on these, their own men-at-arms, they defied the lawful authorities and the levies of the freemen, and thus were able to burst asunder the commonwealth . . .. The only protection to be found was in the relation of serfdom, where personal duty and interest required the lord to protect his clients and to avenge any wrong to his men. Since the state no longer had the power to protect the freemen, these in growing numbers became the vassals of some powerful noble.”122 We find these identical conditions fifteen hundred years later in Kurland, Livonia, in Swedish Pomerania, in Eastern Holstein, in Mecklenburg, and especially in Poland. In the German territories the petty nobles subjugated their peasantry, while in Poland their prey was the formerly free and noble Schlachziz. “Universal history is monotonous,” says Ratzel. The same procedure overthrew the peasantry of ancient Egypt: “After a warlike intermezzo, there follows a period in the history of the Middle Empire, which brings about a deterioration of the position of the peasantry in Lower Egypt. The number of landlords decreases, while their territorial growth and power increases. The tribute of the peasants is hereafter determined by an exact assessment on their estates, and definitely fixed by a sort of Doomsday Book. Because of this pressure, many peasants soon enter the lord’s court or the cities of the local rulers, and take employment there either as servants, mechanics, or even as overseers in the economic organization of these manors or courts. In common with any available captives, they contribute to the extension of the prince’s estates, and to further the general expulsion of the peasantry from their holdings.”123
The example of the Roman Empire shows, as nothing else can, how inevitable this process becomes. When we first meet Rome in history the conception of serfdom or bondage has already been forgotten. When the “modern period” of Rome opens, only slavery is known. And yet, within fifteen centuries, the free peasantry again sink into economic dependence, after Rome has become an overextended, unwieldy empire, whose border districts have more and more dissolved from the central control. The great landed proprietors, having been endowed with the lower justice and police administration on their own estates have “reduced their servants, who may originally have been free proprietors of the ‘ager privatus vectigalis’ to a state of servitude, and have thus developed a sort of actual glebæ adscriptus, within the boundaries of their ‘immunities.’”124 The invading Germans found this feudal order worked out in Gaul and the other provinces. At this particular time, the immense difference formerly existing between slaves and free settlers (coloni) had been completely obliterated, first in their economic position, and then, naturally, in their constitutional rights.
Wherever the common freemen sink into political and economic dependence on the great territorial magnates, when, in other words, they become bound either to the court or to the lands, the social group formerly subject to them tend in a corresponding measure to improve their status. Both layers tend to meet half-way, to approximate their position, and finally to amalgamate. The observations just made concerning the free settlers and the agricultural slaves of the later Roman Empire hold true everywhere. Thus in Germany, freemen and serfs together formed, when fused, the economic and legally unital group of Grundholde, or men bound to the soil.125
The elevation of the former “subjects,” hereafter for the sake of brevity to be called “plebs,” flows from the same source as the debasement of the freeman, and arises by the same necessity from the very foundations on which these states are themselves erected, viz., the agglomeration of the landed property in ever fewer hands.
The plebs are the natural opponents of the central government—since that is their conqueror and tax imposer; while they naturally oppose the common freemen, who despise them and oppress them politically, besides crowding them back economically. The great magnate also is the natural opponent of the central government—an impediment in his path toward complete independence, and he is at the same time also a natural enemy of the common freemen, who in turn not only support the central government; but also block with their possessions his path toward territorial dominion, while with their claims to equality of political rights they annoy his princely pride. Since the political and social interests of the territorial princes and of the plebs coincide, they must become allies; the prince can attain complete independence only if, in his fight for power against the crown and the common freemen, he controls reliable warriors and acquiescent taxpayers; the plebs can only then be freed from their pariah-like declassification, both economically and socially, if the hated and proud common freemen are brought down to their level.
This is the second time that we have noted the identity of interest between the princes and their subjects. The first time we found a weakly developed solidarity in our second stage of state formation. This causes the semi-sovereign prince to treat his dependent tenants as kindly as he ill-treats the free peasants of his territory; in consequence, they will fight the more willingly for him and contribute taxes, while the more readily will the oppressed freemen succumb to the pressure, especially as their share of political power in the state, coincident with the decline of the central power, has become only a meaningless phrase. In some cases, as in Germany toward the end of the tenth century, this was done with full consciousness of its effects126 —some prince exercises a particularly “mild” rule, in order to draw the subjects of a neighboring potentate into his lands, and thus to increase his own strength in war and taxation, and to weaken his opponent’s. The plebs come to possess, both legally and actually, constantly increasing rights, enlarged privileges of the law of ownership, perhaps self-government in common affairs, and their own administration of justice; thus they rise in the same degree as the common freemen sink, until the two classes meet and they are amalgamated into one body on approximately the same jural and economic plane. Half serfs, half subjects of a state, they represent a characteristic formation of the feudal state, which does not as yet recognize any clear distinction between public and private law; in its turn an immediate consequence of its own historical genesis, the dominion in the form of a state for the sake of economic private rights.
[∗]Maspero says, New Light on Ancient Egypt, pp. 218-9: “Until then, in fact, the high priest had been chosen and nominated by the king; from the time of Rameses III, he was always chosen from the same family, and the son succeeded his father on the pontifical throne. From that time events marched quickly. The Theban mortmain was doubled with a veritable seigniorial fief, which its masters increased by marriages with the heirs of neighboring fiefs, by continual bequests from one branch of the family to the other, and by the placing of cadets of each generation at the head of the clergy of certain secondary towns. The official protocol of the offices filled by their wives shows that a century or a century and a half after Rameses III., almost the whole of the Thebaid, about a third of the Egyptian territory was in the hands of the High Priest of Ammon and of his family.”—Translator’s Note (and italics).
[105.]Ratzel, l. c. I, p. 346.
[106.]Ratzel, l. c. II, p. 245.
[107.]Ratzel, l. c. I, pp. 267-8.
[108.]Mommsen, l. c. III, pp. 234-5.
[109.]Ratzel, l. c. II, p. 167.
[110.]Ratzel, l. c. II, p. 229.
[111.]Ratzel, l. c. I, p. 128.
[112.]Weber’s Weltgeschichte, III, p. 163.
[113.]Thurnwald, l. c., pp. 702-3.
[114.]Thurnwald, l. c., p. 712; cf. Schneider, Kultur und Denken der alten Ægypter, Leipzig, 1907, p. 38.
[115.]Ratzel, l. c. II, p. 599.
[116.]Ratzel, l. c. II, p. 362.
[117.]Ratzel, l. c. II, p. 344.
[118.]Meitzen, l. c. II, p. 633.
[119.]Inama-Sternegg, l. c. I, pp. 140-1.
[120.]Mommsen, l. c. V, p. 84.
[121.]Cf. the detailed exposition of this in F. Oppenheimer’s Grossgrundeigentum und die soziale Frage, Book II, Chap. 8.
[122.]Mommsen, l. c. III, pp. 234-5.
[123.]Thurnwald, l. c., p. 771.