Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XI: Changes produced in the Condition of the Vassals, and of the Peasants. - An Historical View of the English Government
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CHAPTER XI: Changes produced in the Condition of the Vassals, and of the Peasants. - John Millar, An Historical View of the English Government 
An Historical View of the English Government, From the Settlement of the Saxons in Britain to the Revolution in 1688, in four volumes, edited by Mark Salber Philips and Dale R. Smith, introduction by Mark Salber Philips (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006).
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Changes produced in the Condition of the Vassals, and of the Peasants.
The members of every feudal dependency consisted of the military retainers or vassals, and of the peasants, or churles; both of whom, in the latter part of the Anglo-Saxon government, experienced a great alteration in their circumstances.
In that state of society which determined allodial proprietors to shelter themselves under the protection of a feudal superior, and by which the number of military retainers was therefore gradually augmented, the privileges belonging to this order of men were naturally increased; and their condition was rendered more secure and comfortable. The original vassals of any person were the members of his own family, who, from natural affection, and from ancient habits, were strongly attached to his interest, and upon whom, from a reciprocal regard, as well as from the consideration of<303> expediency, when they became too numerous to live in his own house, he voluntarily bestowed the possession of lands for their maintenance. As the superior had no reason to suspect that these men would ever be deficient in fidelity, or seek to withdraw their allegiance; so they entertained no apprehension that, while they were willing to fulfil their duty, they should ever be dispossessed of their lands. The intimate connexion between the parties, and the simplicity of their manners, made them place a mutual confidence in each other, and prevented their being apprehensive of any future disputes: so that neither the superior required any specification of the services to be performed, nor the vassal, any express stipulation, with respect to the duration or terms of his possession. Thus the original vassals, though, in fact, their land was commonly permitted to remain with them and their posterity, were properly no more than tenants at will,1 and therefore entirely dependent upon the superior.
But when persons originally independent, had, with a view to certain advantages, allowed themselves to fall into a feudal subordination,<304> or had agreed to exalt an equal or a stranger to the rank of a superior, it could hardly be expected that these new vassals would be willing to hold their lands in so precarious a manner. Cautious of yielding any greater submission than their circumstances required, or suspicious of neglect or oppression from the person whom they had chosen for their protector, they naturally insisted, that the precise conditions of their tenure should be expressly ascertained; while the superior, distrusting the fidelity and attachment of men over whom he had no natural authority, and who submitted to him, perhaps, with reluctance, and from the mere pressure of temporary difficulties, was no less anxious to specify the nature of their service, and to secure the performance of it, by subjecting them, in case of negligence or disobedience, to severe penalties and forfeitures. From a variety of conjunctures, individuals might be laid under the necessity of submitting to harder conditions, upon some occasions than upon others; but, in general, when a feudal tenure was constituted by the consent of any allodial proprietor, it seems to have been expressly provided, that the fief should not only<305> remain with the vassal during life, but should descend, either to his heirs male, or to such of his heirs as were specified in the grant.
By the establishment of those hereditary fiefs, the vassal, instead of being a precarious tenant, became, in effect, the proprietor of the feudal estate, and the interest of the superior was reduced to a reversion2 in default of the vassal’s heirs, together with a right of levying, in particular cases, a variety of perquisites or casual emoluments. Of these casual emoluments or incidents,3 as they are called, which might still accrue to the superior from the estate of his vassal, after it was made transmissible to heirs, the feudal writers have commonly enumerated seven different sorts.
1. Though fiefs had been rendered hereditary, yet, as every person who enjoyed them was liable for the feudal services, it was necessary that an heir, before he obtained the investiture, should solemnly undertake the performance of them, and come under an oath of fidelity to the superior. Upon the death of any vassal, therefore, the superior laid hold of the lands, and detained them in his possession, until the heir should claim a renewal of the<306> feudal engagement. This privilege gave rise to what is called the incident of non-entry.
2. When the feudal tenures were precarious, the sons of the vassals frequently endeavoured, by a present, to procure the favour of the superior, and to obtain the continuance of their ancestor’s possession. Even after fiefs became hereditary, it still was found expedient to secure, by means of a bribe, what, though a matter of right, was not easily extorted by force; and the original arbitrary donation was converted into a regular duty, under the name of relief.
3. If the heir of a former vassal was incapable of performing the feudal service, he had no right to claim the possession of the fief. While he was under age, therefore, the lands were possessed by the superior; who, at the same time, from a regard to his own interest, if not from affection to the family of his old vassal, was induced to assume the guardianship and protection of the minor, his future military servant. Hence the complex burthen, and privilege, which went under the name of wardship.4
4. During the disorders which prevailed<307> under the feudal governments, it was of great consequence that the military vassals should not contract an alliance with the enemy of their liege lord; which might have a tendency to corrupt their fidelity. When fiefs therefore were secured upon a permanent footing, a provision was made against an event of this dangerous nature; and the vassals who married without the superior’s consent, or who even refused to marry according to his desire, became liable to a pecuniary composition or penalty. Such was the incident of marriage; a perquisite suited to the rude and barbarous manners which occasioned its establishment.
5. Beside the ordinary revenue which the superior drew from his estate, he was accustomed, upon extraordinary emergencies, to apply to his vassals, and to request from them a contribution in order to relieve him from his immediate embarrassment. While they held their lands precariously, a request of this nature was equal to a command; since the superior might at pleasure seize upon the whole estate of his tenants. But when the vassals had obtained a more permanent right, it became necessary to settle the particular<308> occasions upon which those contributions were to be made, as well as the extent of the sum that might be demanded; and in this manner, aids or benevolences5 came to be enumerated among the duties payable to a superior. Three cases are mentioned, in which, over all the feudal kingdoms, these contributions might be exacted; to redeem the superior from captivity; to portion his eldest daughter, at her marriage; and to defray the expence of making his eldest son a knight.
6. Though a fief had been rendered hereditary; yet, upon the total failure of heirs, it necessarily returned to the superior. The vassal might also forfeit his right to the lands, by his neglect to perform the feudal service, or by any violation of his duty. This forfeiture, or termination of the fief, was called an escheat.6
7. From the primitive state of the feudal tenures, the vassal had no title to alienate his fief, which he possessed as the wages merely of his military service. But when fiefs, by being transmissible to heirs, began to assume the appearance of property; when the general advancement of arts had rendered land more frequently an object of commerce; and when,<309> upon the suppression of the former disorders, the military service of the vassal was rendered of less importance, it became customary, by the payment of a sum of money, to compound with the superior for the privilege of selling the feudal estate. This produced the perquisite of superiority called the fine of alienation.
These feudal incidents may be considered as the remains of that absolute property of the fief, which the superior had formerly enjoyed; but which, with reservation of such casual emoluments, was now conveyed to the vassal.
After this new species of military retainers had become numerous, and had spread themselves over the country, it is natural to suppose that their privileges would, by the force of example, be communicated to the ancient vassals. The ancient feudal tenants, who, from the more extended connections of the superior, had probably become less the objects of his peculiar attention, and were not always treated with those marks of distinction to which they supposed themselves entitled, beheld with envy and jealousy the stability and security enjoyed by his new vassals; and were solicitous to hold their lands under the same permanent tenure.<310> A concession of this nature, by which the old and faithful followers of a chief were placed upon a footing of equality with strangers, could seldom be decently withheld from them; and in cases where he stood in immediate need of their assistance, was likely to be easily obtained. As these privileges were slowly and gradually introduced, and as they were often accelerated or retarded by the situation of particular baronies, not to mention a variety of accidental circumstances, it is impossible to mark the precise period at which their establishment was compleated; though it is probable that, before the Norman conquest,7 they were extended to the greater part, if not the whole, of the ancient vassals.
While the incidents due to the superior were thus ascertained with accuracy, the interest of the vassals made it no less necessary, that the extent and duration of their military service should be exactly determined. In Britain, and probably in several kingdoms upon the continent, it was limited accordingly to forty days for each year; a period that might appear fully sufficient for those desultory enterprizes which the superior had occasion to<311> undertake. If ever he chose, after the expiration of this period, to retain his vassals in the field, he was under the necessity of procuring their consent, and was obliged to bear the charges of their maintenance.
The effect of these changes in the state of the military tenures could not fail to be discernible in the administration and government of every feudal dependency. Though it still was, no doubt, the interest of the vassals to avoid all contention with the superior, and to merit his favour by their fidelity and alacrity in the discharge of their duty, yet they were not under the same necessity of paying an implicit obedience to his commands. To whatever inconveniencies they might be subjected from the manner of levying the feudal incidents, yet, while they punctually performed their services, they could not, without gross injustice, be deprived of their possessions; and they had a right to follow their own inclination in the management of their private concerns. Sensible of this alteration in their circumstances, the superior was induced to be more cautious of disobliging them, to pay more deference to their opinions, to listen and give<312> way to their remonstrances, and, in public measures of importance, to act with their advice and concurrence. Thus, while the influence and power of the great lords was gradually extended by the multiplication of their vassals, their authority over each particular vassal was necessarily reduced; and they were obliged to exercise it with greater moderation, as well as to endeavour, by the arts of popularity, and even, sometimes, by pecuniary rewards and advantages, to gain the effectual support of their followers.
The improvements made in agriculture, produced alterations, of no less importance, in the state of the peasants or churles. The peasants, as has been formerly observed, were originally bondmen or slaves. But as from the nature of their employment, and from their living at such a distance as to be beyond the reach of the master’s inspection, it was found expedient to excite their industry by bestowing upon them successive gratuities and privileges; many of them were enabled, at an early period, to acquire considerable property; and some of them were advanced to the condition of tenants, intrusted by the master with<313> a discretionary management of their farms. In the natural course of things, these tenants were afterwards raised to a still better situation. When, in consequence of some experience in husbandry, they were about to undertake an expensive melioration of their farms, common prudence required that they should be secure of the possession, for such a period as might afford them a reasonable prospect of a return for their labour and expence. By offering an advanced rent to the master, they sometimes prevailed upon him to make an agreement of that nature, and to grant them a lease for a certain number of years. From the improving circumstances of the tenant, he sometimes obtained, not only a right of holding the estate for life, but of transmitting it to heirs; and there appear to have been some occasions, though it is probable these were not very common, on which, by the payment of a full price, he was enabled to make an entire purchase of the lands.
Those churles who had acquired a landed estate transmissible to heirs, to be held for payment of a yearly rent, were denominated soc-<314>cage vassals.8 From their employment and character, they were of an inferior rank to the military vassals; but they had the same permanent right to their estates. They were also liable to the same incidents of superiority; excepting those of wardship and marriage; the former, because the superior was disposed to pay no attention to the education of such of his dependants as were employed merely in agriculture; the latter, because the alliances which they contracted were deemed of little consequence to him.
The churles who made a full purchase of a landed estate should have become allodial proprietors, and have acquired the rank and privileges of nobility; but the influence of ancient usage prevented so sudden and violent a change in the rank of individuals; and as the proprietor who sold his lands, was unwilling entirely to resign his dignity, so the purchaser had not the presumption to deprive him of it. To retain a faint shadow of the ancient connection, the latter became bound, as an acknowledgment of the superiority, to pay to the former an elusory annual duty, if ever it<315> should be demanded.* We find that, by a statute in the reign of king Athelstan, a churle who had purchased an estate consisting of five hides of land, with certain appendages, usually possessed by gentlemen of that fortune, was declared to have a right to all the privileges of a thane; by which those of a lesser thane, or military vassal, were probably understood.†
From this law, which demonstrates that the encouragement of agriculture was become an object of public attention, it may be inferred, that though in some cases the churles were enabled to acquire landed property, they had not been understood, upon that account, to obtain of course the privileges of the military people; since these were not conferred upon them without a special interposition of the legislature; nor even by that statute, except upon such as had accumulated a very considerable estate. Such was the original inferiority of the peasants, and so strong were the habits connected with their primitive condition, that<316> though they had been raised to independent circumstances, it was with some difficulty they were permitted to hold the rank of gentlemen, and procured the treatment suitable to men of that superior class.
The freedom acquired by a great proportion of the peasants, together with the advances in husbandry from which it proceeded, gave rise to an immediate improvement in arts and manufactures. The first artificers9 were villeins, or servants of the greater thanes; who happening to discover some ingenuity in the common mechanical arts, were employed by the master in those branches of manufacture, which he found requisite for his accommodation. The possession of their farms, according to the rude manner in which agriculture was then practised, did not hinder them from exercising this collateral employment. When these people began to be emancipated from their ancient bondage, they were at liberty to work, not only for their former master, but for every person who chose to employ them; and by working for hire, they drew a regular profit for their labour. A competition was then introduced among different workmen,<317> which contributed to promote their industry and skill; at the same time that the improvements which have been mentioned in the condition of the lower class of people, by increasing their opulence, produced an increase of demand for the ordinary conveniencies of life; and therefore afforded greater encouragement to the occupations by which those conveniencies were supplied. Particular branches of manufacture, or of labour, coming in this manner to be more in request, occasioned more constant employment to individuals; who, at length, found it their interest to abandon every other occupation, and to depend, for their livelihood, upon that single branch in which they had attained a peculiar proficiency.
A variety of trades and mechanical professions were thus introduced; and the artificers and labourers composed a separate order of men in the community. As these grew up and were multiplied, they became the chief part of the inhabitants in those villages where they resided; which were gradually enlarged into towns, of more or less extent according as their situation, or other circumstances, proved more favourable to manufactures.<318>
It is unnecessary to observe, that the separation of trades and professions,10 among the different inhabitants, occasioned, of course, a degree of traffick or exchange of commodities. When the artisans, as well as the farmers, confined themselves to a single employment, they were able, by their own labour, to produce only one sort of commodity; and if they wanted any thing of a different sort, they had commonly no other method of procuring it, than by an exchange with the person who had produced it. This exchange was at first limited, we may suppose, to the inhabitants of the same town or village; but, according as different places began to excel in manufacturing goods of different kinds, it was extended to neighbouring towns, or to the more distant parts of the country. Upon the opening of such intercourse between places at a distance, the inhabitants found it, in some cases, inconvenient to go themselves to purchase the goods which they wanted, and had occasion therefore to employ some of their neighbours for that purpose; from which there arose, by degrees, a common carrier, upon whom this branch of business was frequently devolved. As this person acquired a little stock, he ad-<319>ventured sometimes at his own risk, to buy commodities in one place, with a view of selling them in another; and his employment was at length improved into that of a pedlar or travelling merchant.
Although these tradesmen and mechanics were no longer in a servile condition, they had still much dependence upon the original master, or feudal superior, of that village or town in which they resided. He defended them from the attacks of the military people around them; to which, from the turbulence and disorder of the times, they were greatly exposed; and which, from their unwarlike dispositions, they were of themselves but ill qualified to resist. He also encouraged and promoted their trade, by permitting them to hold fairs and markets, or stated seasons of rendezvous, between the merchants and customers of different places; by supplying them with warehouses, and with measures and weights, for the sale of their goods; and by such other kinds of assistance as, from the rude state of the country, and in the infancy of commerce, their circumstances made them<320> stand in need of. In return for these advantages, he levied from them such tolls and duties as they were able to bear; and of consequence augmented his revenue in proportion to the increase of their wealth.
According as the patron and protector of these manufacturing and trading towns was possessed of greater influence and power, their trade was likely to be the more prosperous and flourishing. Some of those towns, having sprung from the peasantry of the crown demesnes, were under the immediate patronage of the sovereign; others, being situated upon the estates of the greater thanes, were under the protection of those nobles. The former, it is evident, enjoyed a great superiority over the latter. The protection of no particular nobleman could reach beyond the limits of his own estate; but that of the sovereign extended, in some measure, over the whole of the kingdom: not to mention that the king, by residing occasionally in the towns of which he was the immediate protector, and which he was naturally desirous of encouraging, produced a resort of the nobility and gentry to<321> those places; and, by the expensive living incident to a court, created an additional consumption of their commodities.
The extent of the trade of England, before the Norman conquest, cannot, at this distance of time, be ascertained with any degree of precision; but there is reason to believe that it was not very considerable. Of this we need require no farther evidence than the small size of the principal towns in the reign of William the conqueror.* It appears, however, that, for more than a century before that period, the commerce and manufactures of the country had been making advances which attracted the notice of the legislature. By a law of king Athelstan it is enacted, that a merchant who, upon his own account, had made three trading voyages to a foreign country, should acquire the privileges of a thane.† Such extensive trade, it was probably thought at that time,<322> could be attempted only by a person of uncommon spirit, and in affluent circumstances; whose elevation, while it served as an incitement to commercial enterprize, might be regarded as no disparagement to the military people. In other statutes which have been preserved, of the same, and of subsequent princes, we meet with some of those fundamental regulations, which commonly have place in every country, upon the first efforts to introduce a regular commerce; such as the establishment of certain formalities in completing mercantile transactions;† and the appointment of a mint in the principal towns;§ together with that of a common standard of money, and of weights or measures.‖
By the addition of artificers and tradesmen to the different orders formerly mentioned, the whole people of England came now to be distinguished into four great classes; which, from their differences in rank or employment, in characters and habits of living, were separated and kept at a distance from one another.<323> Those who exercised the honourable profession of arms, whether in the station of greater or lesser thanes, of superiors or vassals, thought it inconsistent with their dignity to engage in any lucrative occupation; and disdained to contract alliances with farmers or manufacturers.* The two latter orders of men, though nearly of the same rank, were by their situation prevented from living together, and led to acquire very different manners, and ways of thinking. The solitary and robust employment of the farmer was not apt to form a similar style of behaviour and accomplishments to that which was produced by the sedentary town-life of the manufacturer; and in a country where improvements had not been carried so far as to create an intimate correspondence among all the members of society, those two sets of men were not likely to exchange their professions. The children of the<324> farmers, as well as those of the tradesmen and mechanics, were commonly disposed to follow that way of life with which they had been early acquainted. They were even bred up in most cases, to their father’s employment, before they could well have an opportunity of comparing it with any other. Not only were those two orders of men, in general, confined to their respective professions, but the mechanics, employed in the several branches of manufacture, frequently transmitted their occupations to their posterity; and continued them, for many generations, in the same families. The clergy, who formed a numerous and powerful body, were no less distinguished from the other three classes, by their peculiar education, by their separate views of interest, and by their professional character and manners. The celibacy, indeed, of the clergy, which, however, was introduced in England after the period that we are examining, prevented this order of men from being so entirely separated from the rest of the inhabitants, as might otherwise have been expected. When churchmen were prohibited from having posterity<325> of their own, it was necessary that their profession should be supplied from the other ranks of the society.
From the natural course of things, it should seem, that in every country where religion has had so much influence as to introduce a great body of ecclesiastics, the people, upon the first advances made in agriculture, and in manufactures, are usually distributed into the same number of classes or orders.11 This distribution is, accordingly, to be found, not only in all the European nations, formed upon the ruins of the Roman empire; but in other ages, and in very distant parts of the globe. The ancient inhabitants of Egypt are said to have been divided into the clergy, the military people, the husbandmen, and the artificers; and these four descriptions of men were, by a public regulation, or more probably by the influence of custom, derived from the early situation of the country, kept invariably distinct from one another. The establishment of the four great castes, in the country of Indostan,12 is precisely of the same nature. This division of the people, which goes back into the remotest antiquity, has been ascribed, by historians and po-<326>litical writers, to the positive institution of Brama,13 the early, and perhaps fabulous legislator of that country; but, in all probability, it arose from the natural separation of the principal professions or employments in the state; as it has been since retained by that excessive indolence, to which the inhabitants of those warm and fertile regions are addicted, and which has hitherto checked their improvements, by producing an aversion to every species of innovation.<327>
[1. ]Those whose rights to occupy the tenancy could be terminated by the feudal lord at any time.
[2. ]In law, the legal return of an estate to the donor or grantor, or his heirs.
[3. ]In law, refers to the management and disposal of the estate of a deceased person.
[4. ]The guardianship and custody of the land and person of a minor.
[5. ]Gifts or grants of money, often used in reference to forced loans or contributions levied by the king on his subjects.
[6. ]An incident of feudal law whereby a fief reverted to the lord when the tenant died without leaving a successor to inherit under the original grant.
[7. ]Millar is concerned to argue that important features of the feudal system were generally in place before the Norman Conquest in 1066.
[8. ]Socage is a general term referring to the tenure of land by certain determinate services other than knight service. Hence, as Millar says, the socage vassal belongs to a rank inferior to those who render military service as knights.
[* ]This tenure has been frequently confounded with the ordinary soccage; but sometimes is distinguished by the name of blanch.
[† ]Judicia civitatis Lundoniae. Wilkins, Leg. Sax. p. 70.
[9. ]An artificer is a craftsman, or artisan; a “mechanic.”
[10. ]This is one of a number of places in which Millar, following Smith, introduces the topic of the division of labor.
[* ]With regard to this point, see Doomsday-book—and Dr. Brady on Boroughs. [[Millar’s general references are to the Domesday Book, the census that William commissioned in 1085 and completed 1086–87, and to Robert Brady. See Domesday Book: A Complete Translation, ed. Ann Williams and G. H. Martin (London: Penguin, 1992); and Brady, Historical Treatise of Cities and Burghs, 2nd ed. (London, 1704), which includes borough information during this period, 4–17.]]
[† ]Et si mercator tamen sit, qui ter trans altum mare “per facultates proprias abeat, ille postea jure thani sit dignus.” [[“And if there nevertheless is a merchant who crosses the high sea three times using his own resources, he shall afterward be worthy of the privilege of a thane.”—[ Judicia civitatis Lundoniae. Wilkins, Leg. Sax. p. 71.]]]
[† ]Wilkins, Leg. Sax. p. 80, 81.
[§ ]Ibid. p. 59.
[‖ ]Ibid. p. 78.
[* ]After the Norman conquest, we find that the superior lord was prohibited by statute to marry his female ward to a villein or a burgess. It is probable that the rank of the two last-mentioned orders of men had risen considerably, before this prohibition was thought necessary.
[11. ]Millar once again returns to both the subject and the essential method of his first book, The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks.
[12. ]Indostan is an archaic name for the Indian subcontinent; caste refers to the traditional division of Indian society into several hereditary groupings, divided along social, religious, and professional lines.
[13. ]The ancient Laws of Manu are traditionally believed to have been inspired by Brahma, the Hindu creator.