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LECTURE IV.: THE FEUDAL SYSTEM. * - François Guizot, General History of Civilization in Europe 
General History of Civilization in Europe by François Pierre Guillaume Guizot, edited, with critical and supplementary notes, by George Wells Knight (New York: D Appleton and Co., 1896).
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THE FEUDAL SYSTEM.*
I have thus far endeavored to give you a view of the state of Europe upon the fall of the Roman empire; of its state in the first period of modern history—in the period of barbarism. We have seen that at the end of the period, towards the beginning of the tenth century, the first principle, the first system, which took possession of European society, was the feudal system—that out of the very bosom of barbarism sprung feudalism. The investigation of this system will be the subject of the present lecture.
I need scarcely remind you that it is not the history of events, properly so called, that we propose to consider. I shall not here recount the destinies of the feudal system. The subject which engages our attention is the history of civilization; it is that general, hidden fact, which we have to seek for, out of all the exterior facts in which its existence is contained.
Thus the events, the social crises, the various states through which society has passed, will in no way interest us, except so far as they are connected with the growth of civilization; we have only to learn from them how they have retarded or forwarded this great work; what they have given it, and what they have withheld from it. It is only in this point of view that we shall consider the feudal system.
In the first of these lectures we settled what civilization was; we endeavored to discover its elements; we saw that it consisted, on one side, in the development of man himself, of the individual, of humanity; on the other, of his outward or social condition. When then we come to any event, to any system, to any general condition of society, we have this two-fold question to put to it: What has it done for or against the development of man—for or against the development of society? It will, however, be at once seen that, in the investigation we have undertaken, it will be impossible for us not to come in contact with some of the grandest questions in moral philosophy. When we would, for example, know in what an event, a system, has contributed to the progress of man and of society, it is necessary that we should know what is the true development of society and of man; and be enabled to detect those developments which are deceitful, illegitimate,—which pervert instead of meliorate,—which cause them to retrograde instead of to advance. We shall not attempt to elude this task. By so doing we should mutilate and weaken our ideas, as well as the facts themselves. Besides, the present state of the world, the spirit of the age, compels us at once frankly to welcome this inevitable alliance of philosophy and history.
This indeed forms a striking, perhaps the essential, characteristic of the present times. We are now compelled to consider—science and reality—theory and practice—right and fact—and to make them move side by side. Down to the present time these two powers have lived apart. The world has been accustomed to see theory and practice following two different routes, unknown to each other, or at least never meeting. When doctrines, when general ideas, have wished to intermeddle in affairs, to influence the world, it has only been able to effect this under the appearance and by the aid of fanaticism. Up to the present time the government of human societies, the direction of their affairs, have been divided between two sorts of influences; on one side theorists, men who would rule all according to abstract notions—enthusiasts; on the other, men ignorant of all rational principle,—experimentalists, whose only guide is expediency. This state of things is now over. The world will no longer agitate for the sake of some abstract principle, some fanciful theory—some Utopian government which can only exist in the imagination of an enthusiast; nor will it put up with practical abuses and oppressions, however favored by prescription and expediency, where they are opposed to the just principles and the legitimate end of government. To ensure respect, to obtain confidence, governing powers must now unite theory and practice; they must know and acknowledge the influence of both. They must regard as well principles as facts; must respect both truth and necessity—must shun, on one hand, the blind pride of the fanatic theorist, and, on the other, the no less blind pride of the libertine practician. To this better state of things we have been brought by the progress of the human mind and the progress of society. On one side the human mind is so elevated and enlarged that it is able to view at once, as a whole, the subject or fact which comes under its notice, with all the various circumstances and principles which affect it—these it calculates and combines—it so opposes, mixes, and arranges them—that while the everlasting principle is placed boldly and prominently forward so as not to be mistaken, care is taken that it shall not be endangered, that its progress shall not be retarded by a negligent or rash estimate of the circumstances which oppose it. On the other side, social systems are so improved as no longer to shrink from the light of truth; so improved, that facts may be brought to the test of science—practice may be placed by the side of theory, and, notwithstanding its many imperfections, the comparison will excite in us neither discouragement nor disgust.
I shall give way, then, freely to this natural tendency—to this spirit of the age, by passing continually from the investigation of circumstances to the investigation of ideas—from an exposition of facts to the consideration of doctrines. Perhaps there is, in the present disposition of the public, another reason in favor of this method. For some time past there has existed among us a decided taste, a sort of predilection for facts, for looking at things in a practical point of view. We have been so much a prey to the despotism of abstract ideas, of theories,—they have, in some respects, cost us so dear, that we now regard them with a degree of distrust. We like better to refer to facts, to particular circumstances, and to judge and act accordingly. Let us not complain of this. It is a new advance—it is a grand step in knowledge, and towards the empire of truth; provided, however, we do not suffer ourselves to be carried too far by this disposition—provided that we do not forget that truth alone has a right to reign in the world; that facts have no merit but in proportion as they bear its stamp, and assimilate themselves more and more to its image; that all true grandeur proceeds from mind; that all expansion belongs to it. The civilization of France possesses this peculiar character; it has never been wanting in intellectual grandeur. It has always been rich in ideas. The power of mind has been great in French society—greater, perhaps, than anywhere else. It must not lose this happy privilege—it must not fall into that lower, that somewhat material condition which prevails in other societies. Intelligence, theories, must still maintain in France the same rank which they have hitherto occupied.
I shall not then attempt to shun these general and philosophical questions: I will not go out of my way to seek them, but when circumstances bring them naturally before me, I shall attack them without hesitation or embarrassment. This will be the case more than once in considering the feudal system as connected with the history of European civilization.
A great proof that in the tenth century the feudal system was necessary, and the only social system practicable, is the universality of its adoption. Wherever barbarism ceased, feudalism became general. This at first struck men as the triumph of chaos. All unity, all general civilization seemed gone; society on all sides seemed dismembered; a multitude of petty, obscure, isolated, incoherent societies arose. This appeared, to those who lived and saw it, universal anarchy—the dissolution of all things.* Consult the poets and historians of the day: they all believed that the end of the world was at hand. Yet this was, in truth, a new and real social system which was forming: feudal society was so necessary, so inevitable, so altogether the only consequence that could flow from the previous state of things, that all entered into it, all adopted its form. Even elements the most foreign to this system, the Church, the free communities, royalty, all were constrained to accommodate themselves to it. Churches became sovereigns and vassals; cities became lords and vassals; royalty was hidden under the feudal suzerain. All things were given in fief, not only estates, but rights and privileges: the right to cut wood in the forests, the privilege of fishing. The churches gave their surplice-fees in fief: the revenues of baptism—the fees for churching women. In the same manner, too, that all the great elements of society were drawn within the feudal enclosure, so even the smallest portions, the most trifling circumstances of common life, became subject to feudalism.
In observing the feudal system thus taking possession of every part of society, one might be apt, at first, to believe that the essential, vital principle of feudalism everywhere prevailed. This would be a grand mistake. Although they put on the feudal form, yet the institutions, the elements of society which were not analogous to the feudal system, did not lose their nature, the principles by which they were distinguished. The feudal church, for example, never ceased for a moment to be animated and governed at bottom by the principles of theocracy, and she never for a moment relaxed her endeavors to gain for this the predominancy. Now she leagued with royalty, now with the pope, and now with the people, to destroy this system, whose livery, for the time, she was compelled to put on. It was the same with royalty and the free cities: in one the principle of monarchy, in the others the principle of democracy, continued fundamentally to prevail: and, notwithstanding their feudal appearance, these various elements of European society constantly labored to deliver themselves from a form so foreign to their nature, and to put on that which corresponded with their true and vital principle.
Though perfectly satisfied, therefore, of the universality of the feudal form, we must take care not to conclude on that account, that the feudal principle was equally universal. We must be no less cautious not to take our ideas of feudalism indifferently from every object which bears its physiognomy. In order to know and understand this system thoroughly—to unravel and judge of its effects upon modern civilization—we must seek it where the form and spirit dwell together; we must study it in the hierarchy of the laic possessors of fiefs; in the association of the conquerors of the European territory. This was the true residence of the feudal system, and into this we will now endeavor to penetrate.
I said a few words, just now, on the importance of questions of a moral nature; and on the danger and inconvenience of passing them by without proper attention. A matter of a totally opposite character arises here, and demands our consideration; it is one which has been, in general, too much neglected. I allude to the physical condition of society; to the changes which take place in the life and manners of a people in consequence of some. new event, some revolution, some new state into which it may be thrown. These changes have not always been sufficiently attended to. The modification which these great crises in the history of the world have wrought in the material existence of mankind—in the physical conditions of the relations of men to one another—have not been investigated with so much advantage as they might have been. These modifications have more influence upon the general body of society than is imagined. Every one knows how much has been said upon the influence of climate, and of the importance which Montesquieu attached to it. Now if we regard only the direct influence of climate upon man, perhaps it has not been so extensive as is generally supposed; it is, to say the least, vague and difficult to appreciate; but the indirect influence of climate, that, for example, which arises from the circumstance that in a hot country man lives in the open air, while in a cold one he lives shut up in his habitation—that he lives here upon one kind of food, and there upon another; these are facts of extreme importance, inasmuch as a simple change in physical life may have a powerful effect upon the course of civilization. Every great revolution leads to modifications of this nature in the social system, and consequently claims our consideration.
The establishment of the feudal system wrought a change of this kind, which had a powerful and striking influence upon European civilization. It changed the distribution of the population. Hitherto the lords of the territory, the conquering population, had lived united in masses more or less numerous, either settled in cities, or moving about the country in bands; but by the operation of the feudal system these men were brought to live isolated, each in his own dwelling, at long distances apart. You will instantly perceive the influence which this change must have exercised upon the character and progress of civilization. The social preponderance—the government of society, passed at once from cities to the country; the baronial courts of the great landed proprietors took the place of the great national assemblies—the public body was lost in the thousand little sovereignties into which every kingdom was split. This was the first consequence—a consequence purely physical, of the triumph of the feudal system. The more closely we examine this circumstance, the more clearly and forcibly will its effects present themselves to our notice.
Let us now examine this society in itself, and trace out its influence upon the progress of civilization. We will take feudalism, in the first place, in its most simple state, in its primitive fundamental form. We will visit a possessor of a fief in his lonely domain; we will see the course of life which he leads there, and the little society by which he is surrounded.
Having fixed upon an elevated solitary spot, strong by nature, and which he takes care to render secure, the lordly proprietor of the domain builds his castle. Here he settles himself, with his wife and children, and perhaps some few freemen, who, not having obtained fiefs, not having themselves become proprietors, have attached themselves to his fortunes, and continued to live with him and form a part of his household. These are the inhabitants of the interior of the castle. At the foot of the hill on which this castle stands we find huddled together a little population of peasants, of serfs, who cultivate the lands of the possessor of the fief. In the midst of this group of cottages religion soon planted a church and a priest. A priest, in these early days of feudalism, was generally the chaplain of the baron, and the curate of the village; two offices which by and by became separated, and the village had its pastor dwelling by the side of his church.
Such is the first form, the elementary principle, of feudal society. We will now examine this simple form, in order to put to it the twofold question we have to ask of every fact, namely, what it has done towards the progress—first, of man, himself; secondly, of society?
It is with peculiar propriety that we put this twofold question to the little society I have just described, and that we should attach importance to its answers, forasmuch as this society is the type, the faithful picture, of feudal society in the aggregate; the baron, the people of his domain, and the priest, compose, whether upon a large or smaller scale, the feudal system* when separated from monarchy and cities, two distinct and foreign elements.
The first circumstance which strikes us in looking at this little community is the great importance with which the possessor of the fief must have been regarded, not only by himself, but by all around him. A feeling of personal consequence, of individual liberty, was a prevailing feature in the character of the barbarians. The feeling here, however, was of a different nature; it was no longer simply the liberty of the man, of the warrior, it was the importance of the proprietor, of the head of the family, of the master. His situation, with regard to all around him, would naturally beget in him an idea of superiority—a superiority of a peculiar nature, and very different from that we meet with in other systems of civilization. Look, for example, at the Roman patrician, who was placed in one of the highest aristocratic situations of the ancient world. Like the feudal lord, he was head of the family, superior, master; and besides this, he was a religious magistrate, high priest over his household. But mark the difference: his importance as a religious magistrate is derived from without. It is not an importance strictly personal, attached to the individual: he receives it from on high; he is the delegate of divinity, the interpreter of religious faith. The Roman patrician, moreover, was the member of a corporation which lived united in the same place—a member of the senate—again, an importance which he derived from without, from his corporation. The greatness of these ancient aristocrats, associated with a religious and political character, belonged to the situation, to the corporation in general, rather than to the individual. That of the proprietor of a fief belonged to himself alone; he held nothing of any one;* all his rights, all his power, centered in himself. He is no religious magistrate; he forms no part of a senate; it is in the individual, in his own person, that all his importance resides—all that he is, he is of himself, in his own name alone. What a vast influence must a situation like this have exercised over him who enjoyed it! What haughtiness, what pride, must it have engendered! Above him, no superior of whom he was but the representative and interpreter; near him no equals; no general and powerful law to restrain him—no exterior force to control him; his will suffered no check but from the limits of his power, and the presence of danger. Such seems to me the moral effect that would naturally be produced upon the character or disposition of man, by the situation in which he was placed under the feudal system.
I shall proceed to a second consequence equally important, though too little noticed; I mean the peculiar character of the feudal family.
Let us consider for a moment the various family systems. Let us look, in the first place, at the patriarchal family, of which so beautiful a picture is given us in the Bible, and in numerous Oriental treatises. We find it composed of a great number of individuals—it was a tribe. The chief, the patriarch, in this case, lives in common with his children, with his neighbors, with the various generations assembled around him—all his relations or his servants. He not only lives with them, he has the same interests, the same occupations, he leads the same life. This was the situation of Abraham, and of the patriarchs; and is still that of the Bedouin Arabs, who, from generation to generation, continue to follow the same patriarchal mode of life.
Let us look next at the clan—another family system, which now scarcely exists, except in Scotland and Ireland, but through which probably the greater part of the European world has passed. This is no longer the patriarchal family. A great difference is found here between the chief and the rest of the community; he leads not the same life; the greater part are employed in husbandry, and in supplying his wants, while the chief himself lives in idleness or war. Still they all descend from the same stock; they all bear the same name; and their common parentage, their ancient traditions, the same remembrances, and the same associations, create a moral tie, a sort of equality, between all the members of the clan.
These are the two principal forms of family society as represented by history. Does either of them, let me ask you, resemble the feudal family? Certainly not. At the first glance, there may, indeed, seem some similarity between the feudal family and the clan; but the difference is marked and striking. The population which surrounds the possessor of the fief is quite foreign to him; it bears not his name. They are unconnected by relationship, or by any historical or moral tie. The same holds with respect to the patriarchal family. The feudal proprietor neither leads the same life, nor follows the same occupations as those who live around him; he is engaged in arms, or lives in idleness: the others are laborers. The feudal family is not numerous—it forms no tribe—it is confined to a single family properly so called; to the wife and children, who live separated from the rest of the people in the interior of the castle. The peasantry and serfs form no part of it; they are of another origin, and immeasurably beneath it. Five or six individuals, at a vast height above them, and at the same time foreigners, make up the feudal family. Is it not evident that the peculiarity of its situation must have given to this family a peculiar character? Confined, concentrated, called upon continually to defend itself; mistrusting, or at least shutting itself up from the rest of the world, even from its servants, in-door life, domestic manners must naturally have acquired a great preponderance. We cannot keep out of sight, that the grosser passions of the chief, the constantly passing his time in warfare or hunting, opposed a considerable obstacle to the formation of a strictly domestic society. But its progress, though slow, was certain. The chief, however violent and brutal his out-door exercises, must habitually return into the bosom of his family. He there finds his wife and children, and scarcely any but them; they alone are his constant companions; they alone divide his sorrows and soften his joys; they alone are interested in all that concerns him. It could not but happen in such circumstances, that domestic life must have acquired a vast influence; nor is there any lack of proofs that it did so. Was it not in the bosom of the feudal family that the importance of women, that the value of the wife and mother, at last made itself known? In none of the ancient communities, not merely speaking of those in which the spirit of family never existed, but in those in which it existed most powerfully—say, for example, in the patriarchal system—in none of these did women ever attain to anything like the place which they acquire in Europe under the feudal system. It is to the progress, to the preponderance of domestic manners in the feudal halls and castles, that they owe this change, this improvement in their condition. The cause of this has been sought for in the peculiar manners of the ancient Germans; in a national respect which they are said to have borne, in the midst of their forests, to the female sex.* Upon a single phrase of Tacitus, Germanic patriotism has founded a high degree of superiority—of primitive and ineffable purity of manners—in the relations between the two sexes among the Germans. Pure chimeras! Phrases like this of Tacitus—sentiments and customs analogous to those of the Germans of old, are found in the narratives of a host of writers, who have seen, or inquired into, the manners of savage and barbarous tribes. There is nothing primitive, nothing peculiar to a certain race in this matter. It was in the effects of a very decided social situation—it was in the increase and preponderance of domestic manners, that the importance of the female sex in Europe had its rise, and the preponderance of domestic manners in Europe very early became an essential characteristic in the feudal system.
A second circumstance, a fresh proof of the influence of domestic life, forms a striking feature in the picture of a feudal family: I mean the principle of inheritance—the spirit of perpetuity which so strongly predominates in its character. This spirit of inheritance is a natural off-shoot of the spirit of family, but it nowhere took such deep root as in the feudal system, where it was nourished by the nature of the property with which the family was, as it were, incorporated. The fief differed from other possessions in this, that it constantly required a chief, or owner, who could defend it, manage it, discharge the obligations by which it was held, and thus maintain its rank in the general association of the great proprietors of the kingdom. There thus became a kind of identification of the possessor of the fief with the fief itself, and with all its future possessors.
This circumstance powerfully tended to strengthen and knit together the ties of family, already so strong by the nature of the feudal system itself.
Quitting the baronial dwelling, let us now descend to the little population that surrounds it. Everything here wears a different aspect. The disposition of man is so kindly and good, that it is almost impossible for a number of individuals to be placed for any length of time in a social situation without giving birth to a certain moral tie between them: sentiments of protection, of benevolence, of affection, spring up naturally. Thus it happened in the feudal system. There can be no doubt, but that after a certain time, kind and friendly feelings would grow up between the feudal lord and his serfs. This, however, took place in spite of their relative situation, and by no means through its influence. Considered in itself, this situation was radically vicious. There was nothing morally common between the holder of the fief and his serfs. They formed part of his estate; they were his property; and under this word property are comprised, not only all the rights which we delegate to the public magistrate to exercise in the name of the state, but likewise all those which we possess over private property: the right of making laws, of levying taxes, of inflicting punishment, as well as that of disposing of them—or selling them. There existed not, in fact, between the lord of the domain and its cultivators, so far as we consider the latter as men, either rights, guarantee, or society.
From this I believe has arisen that almost universal, invincible hatred which country people have at all times borne to the feudal system, to every remnant of it—to its very name. We are not without examples of men having submitted to the heavy yoke of despotism, of their having become accustomed to it, nay more, of their having freely accepted it. Religious despotism, monarchical despotism, have more than once obtained the sanction, almost the love, of the population which they governed. But feudal despotism has always been repulsed, always hateful. It tyrannized over the destinies of men, without ruling in their hearts. Perhaps this may be partly accounted for by the fact, that, in religious and monarchical despotism, authority is always exercised by virtue of some belief or opinion common to both ruler and subjects; he is the representative, the minister, of another power superior to all human powers. He speaks or acts in the name of Divinity or of a common feeling, and not in the name of man himself, of man alone. Feudal despotism differed from this; it was the authority of man over man; the domination of the personal, capricious will of an individual. This perhaps is the only tyranny to which man, much to his honor, never will submit. Wherever in a ruler, or master, he sees but the individual man,—the moment that the authority which presses upon him is no more than an individual, a human will, one like his own, he feels mortified and indignant, and struggles against the yoke which he is compelled to bear. Such was the true, the distinctive character of the feudal power, and such was the origin of the hatred which it has never ceased to inspire.
The religious element which was associated with the feudal power was but little calculated to alleviate its yoke. I do not see how the influence of the priest could be very great in the society which I have just described, or that he could have much success in legitimizing the connection between the enslaved people and the lordly proprietor. The Church has exercised a very powerful influence in the civilization of Europe, but then it has been by proceeding in a general manner—by changing the general dispositions of mankind. When we enter intimately into the little feudal society, properly so called, we find the influence of the priest between the baron and his serfs to have been very slight. It most frequently happened that he was as rude and nearly as much under control as the serf himself; and therefore not very well fitted, either by his position or talents, to enter into a contest with the lordly baron. We must, to be sure, naturally suppose, that, called upon as he was by his office to administer and to keep alive among these poor people the great moral truths of Christianity, he became endeared and useful to them in this respect; he consoled and instructed them; but I believe he had but little power to soften their hard condition.
Having examined the feudal system in its rudest, its simplest form; having placed before you the principal consequences which flowed from it, as respects the possessor of the fief himself, as respects his family, and as respects the population gathered about him; let us now quit this narrow precinct. The population of the fief was not the only one in the land: there were other societies more or less like his own of which he was a member—with which he was connected. What, then, let us ask, was the influence which this general society to which he belonged might be expected to exercise upon civilization?
One short observation before we reply: both the possessor of the fief and the priest, it is true, formed part of a general society; in the distance they had numerous and frequent connections; not so the cultivators—the serfs. Every time that, in speaking of the population of the country at this period, we make use of some general term, which seems to convey the idea of one single and same society—such for example as the word people—we speak without truth. For this population there was no general society—its existence was purely local. Beyond the estate in which they dwelt, the serfs had no relations whatever,—no connection either with persons, things, or government. For them there existed no common destiny, no common country—they formed not a nation. When we speak of the feudal association as a whole, it is only the great proprietors that are alluded to.
Let us now see what the relations of the little feudal society were with the general society to which it held, and what consequences these relations may be expected to have led to in the progress of civilization.
We all know what the ties were which bound together the possessors of fiefs; what conditions were attached to their possessions; what were the obligations of service on one part, and of protection on the other. I shall not enter into a detail of these obligations; it is enough for the present purpose that you have a general idea of them.* This system, however, seemed naturally to pour into the mind of every possessor of a fief a certain number of ideas and moral sentiments—ideas of duty, sentiments of affection. That the principles of fidelity, devotedness, loyalty, became developed, and maintained by the relations in which the possessors of fiefs stood towards one another, is evident. The fact speaks for itself.
The attempt was made to change these obligations, these duties, these sentiments, and so on, into laws and institutions. It is well known that feudalism wished legally to settle what services the possessor of a fief owed to his sovereign; what services he had a right to expect from him in return; in what cases the vassal might be called upon to furnish military or pecuniary aid to his lord; in what way the lord might obtain the services of his vassals, in those affairs, in which they were not bound to yield them by the mere possession of their fiefs. The attempt was made to place all these rights under the protection of institutions founded to ensure their respect. Thus the baronial jurisdictions were erected to administer justice between the possessors of fiefs, upon complaints duly laid before their common suzerain. Thus every baron of any consideration collected his vassals in parliament, to debate in common the affairs which required their consent or concurrence. There was, in short, a combination of political, judicial, and military means, which show the attempt to organize the feudal system—to convert the relations between the possessors of fiefs into laws and institutions. But these laws, these institutions, had no stability—no guarantee.
If it should be asked what is a political guarantee, I am compelled to look back to its fundamental character, and to state that this is the constant existence, in the bosom of society, of a will, of an authority disposed and in a condition to impose a law upon the wills and powers of private individuals—to enforce their obedience to the common rule, to make them respect the general law.
There are only two systems of political guarantees possible; there must be either a will, a particular power, so superior to the others that none of them can resist it, but are obliged to yield to its authority whenever it is interposed; or, on the other, a public will, the result of the concurrence—of the development of the wills of individuals, and which likewise is in a condition, when once it has expressed itself, to make itself obeyed and respected by all.
These are the only two systems of political guarantees possible; the despotism of one alone, or of a body; or free government. If we examine the various systems, we shall find that they may all be brought under one of these two.
Well, neither of these existed, or could exist, under the feudal system.
Without doubt the possessors of fiefs were not all equal among themselves. There were some much more powerful than others; and very many sufficiently powerful to oppress the weaker. But there was none, from the king, the first of the proprietors, downward, who was in a condition to impose law upon all the others; in a condition to make himself obeyed. Call to mind that none of the permanent means of power and influence at this time existed—no standing army—no regular taxes—no fixed tribunals. The social authorities—the institutions, had, in a manner, to be new formed every time they were wanted. A tribunal had to be formed for every trial—an army to be formed for every war—a revenue to be formed every time that money was needed. All was occasional—accidental—special; there was no central, permanent, independent means of government. It is evident that in such a system no individual had the power to enforce his will upon others; to compel all to respect and obey the general law.* On the other hand, resistance was easy, in proportion as repression was difficult. Shut up in his castle, with but a small number of enemies to cope with, and aware that other vassals in a like situation were ready to join and assist him, the possessor of a fief found but little difficulty in defending himself.
It must then, I think, be confessed, that the first system of political guarantees—namely, that which would make all responsible to the strongest—has been shown to be impossible under the feudal system.
The other system—that of free government, of a public power, a public authority—was just as impracticable. The reason is simple enough. When we speak now of a public power, of what we call the rights of sovereignty—that is, the right of making laws, of imposing taxes, of inflicting punishment, we know, we bear in mind, that these rights belong to nobody; that no one has, on his own account, the right to punish others, or to impose any burden or law upon them. These are rights which belong only to the great body of society, which are exercised only in its name; they are emanations from the people, and held in trust for their benefit. Thus it happens that when an individual is brought before an authority invested with these rights, the sentiment that predominates in his mind, though perhaps he himself may be unconscious of it, is, that he is in the presence of a public legitimate authority, invested with the power to command him, an authority which, beforehand, he has tacitly acknowledged. This was by no means the case under the feudal system. The possessor of a fief, within his domain, was invested with all the rights and privileges of sovereignty; he inherited them with the territory; they were a matter of private property. What are now called public rights were then private rights; what are now called public authorities were then private authorities. When the possessor of a fief, after having exercised sovereign power in his own name, as proprietor over all the population which lived around him, attended an assembly, attended a parliament held by his sovereign—a parliament not in general very numerous, and composed of men of the same grade, or nearly so, as himself—he did not carry with him any notion of a public authority. This idea was in direct contradiction to all about him—to all his notions, to all that he had done within his own domains. All he saw in these assemblies were men invested with the same rights as himself, in the same situation as himself, acting as he had done by virtue of their own personal title. Nothing led or compelled him to see or acknowledge in the very highest portion of the government, or in the institutions which we call public, that character of superiority or generality which seems to us bound up with the notion of political power. Hence, if he was dissatisfied with its decision, he refused to concur in it, and perhaps called in force to resist it.
Force, indeed, was the true and usual guarantee of right under the feudal system, if force can be called a guarantee. Every law continually had recourse to force to make itself respected or acknowledged. No institution succeeded in doing this. This was so perfectly felt that institutions were scarcely ever applied to. If the agency of the baronial courts or parliaments of vassals had been of any importance, we should find them more generally employed than from history they appear to have been. Their rarity proves their insignificance.
This is not astonishing. There is another reason for it more profound and decisive than any I have yet adduced.
Of all the systems of government and political guarantee, it may be asserted, without fear of contradiction, that the most difficult to establish and render effectual is the federative system; a system which consists in leaving in each place or province, in every separate society, all that portion of government which can abide there, and in taking from it only so much of it as is indispensable to a general society, in order to carry it to the center of this larger society, and there to embody it under the form of a central government. This federative system, theoretically the most simple, is found in practice the most complex; for in order to reconcile the degree of independence, of local liberty, which is permitted to remain, with the degree of general order, of general submission, which in certain cases it supposes and exacts, evidently requires a very advanced state of civilization—requires, indeed, that the will of man, that individual liberty, should concur in the establishment and maintenance of the system much more than in any other, because it possesses less than any other the means of coercion.
The federative system, then, is one which evidently requires the greatest maturity of reason, of morality, of civilization in the society to which it is applied. Yet we find that this was the kind of government which the feudal system attempted to establish: for feudalism, as a whole, was truly a confederation. It rested upon the same principles, for example, as those on which is based, in the present day, the federative system of the United States of America. It affected to leave in the hands of each great proprietor all that portion of the government, of sovereignty, which could be exercised there, and to carry to the suzerain, or to the general assembly of barons, the least possible portion of power, and only this in cases of absolute necessity. You will easily conceive the impossibility of establishing a system like this in a world of ignorance, of brute passions, or, in a word, where the moral condition of man was so imperfect as under the feudal system. The very nature of such a government was in opposition to the notions, the habits and manners of the very men to whom it was to be applied. How then can we be astonished at the bad success of this attempt at organization?
We have now considered the feudal system, first, in its most simple element, in its fundamental principle; and then in its collective form, as a whole; we have examined it under these two points of view, in order to see what it did and what it might have been expected to do; what has been its influence on the progress of civilization. These investigations, I think, bring us to this twofold conclusion:—
1. Feudalism seems to have exercised a great, and, upon the whole, a salutary influence upon the intellectual development of individuals. It gave birth to elevated ideas and feelings in the mind, to moral wants, to grand developments of character and passion.
2. With regard to society, it was incapable of establishing either legal order or political guarantee. In the wretched state to which society had been reduced by barbarism, in which it was incapable of a more regular or enlarged form, the feudal system seemed indispensable as a step towards reassociation; still this system, in itself radically vicious, could neither regulate nor enlarge society. The only political right which the feudal system was capable of exercising in European society, was the right of resistance: I will not say legal resistance, for there can be no question of legal resistance in a society so little advanced. The progress of society consists pre-eminently in substituting, on one hand, public authority for private will; and, on the other, legal resistance for individual resistance. This is the great end, the chief perfection, of social order; a large field is left to personal liberty, but when personal liberty offends, when it becomes necessary to call it to account, our only appeal is to public reason; public reason is placed in the judge’s chair to pass sentence on the charge which is preferred against individual liberty. Such is the system of legal order and of legal resistance. You will easily perceive, that there was nothing bearing any resemblance to this in the feudal system. The right of resistance, which was maintained and practised in this system, was the right of personal resistance; a terrible and antisocial right, inasmuch as its only appeal is to brute force—to war—which is the destruction of society itself; a right, however, which ought never to be entirely erased from the mind of man, because by its abolition he puts on the fetters of servitude. The notion of the right of resistance had been banished from the Roman community, in the general disgrace and infamy into which it had fallen, and it could not be regenerated from its ruins. It could not, in my opinion, have sprung more naturally from the principles of Christian society. It is to the feudal system that we are indebted for its re-introduction among us. The glory of civilization is to render this principle for ever inactive and useless; the glory of the feudal system is its having constantly professed and defended it.
Such, if I am not widely mistaken, is the result of our investigation of the feudal community, considered in itself, in its general principles, and independently of its historical progress. If we now turn to facts, to history, we shall find it to have fallen out, just as might have been expected, that the feudal system accomplished its task; that its destiny has been conformable to its nature. Events may be adduced in proof of all the conjectures, of all the inductions, which I have drawn from the nature and essential character of this system.
Take a glance, for example, at the general history of feudalism, from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries, and say, is it not impossible to deny that it exercised a vast and salutary influence upon the progress of individual man—upon the development of his sentiments, his disposition, and his ideas? Where can we open the history of this period, without discovering a crowd of noble sentiments, of splendid achievements, of beautiful developments of humanity, evidently generated in the bosom of feudal life. Chivalry, which in reality bears scarcely the least resemblance to feudalism, was nevertheless its offspring. It was feudalism which gave birth to that romantic thirst and fondness for all that is noble, generous, and faithful—for that sentiment of honor, which still raises its voice in favor of the system by which it was nursed.*
But turn to another side. Here we see that the first sparks of European imagination, that the first attempts of poetry, of literature, that the first intellectual gratifications which Europe tasted in emerging from barbarism, sprung up under the protection, under the wings, of feudalism. It was in the baronial hall that they were born, and cherished, and protected. It is to the feudal times that we trace back the earliest literary monuments of England, France, and Germany, the earliest intellectual enjoyments of modern Europe.
As a set-off to this, if we question history respecting the influence of feudalism upon the social system, its reply is, though still in accordance with our conjectures, that the feudal system has everywhere opposed not only the establishment of general order, but at the same time the extension of general liberty. Under whatever point of view we consider the progress of society, the feudal system always appears as an obstacle in its way.* Hence, from the earliest existence of feudalism, the two powers which have been the prime movers in the progress of order and liberty—monarchical power on the one hand, and popular power on the other—that is to say, the king and the people—have both attacked it, and struggled against it continually. What few attempts were made at different periods to regulate it, to impart to it somewhat of a legal, a general character—as was done in England, by William the Conqueror and his sons; in France, by St. Louis; and by several of the German emperors—all these endeavors, all these attempts failed. The very nature itself of feudality is opposed to order and legality. In the last century, some writers of talent attempted to dress out feudalism as a social system; they endeavored to make it appear a legitimate, well-ordered, progressive state of society, and represented it as a golden age. Ask them, however, where it existed: summon them to assign it a locality, and a time, and they will be found wanting. It is a Utopia without date, a drama, for which we find, in the past, neither theatre nor actors. The cause of this error is noways difficult to discover; and it accounts as well for the error of the opposite class, who cannot pronounce the name of feudalism without coupling to it an absolute anathema. Both these parties have looked at it, as the two knights did at the statue of Janus, only on one side. They have not considered the two different points of view from which feudalism may be surveyed. They do not distinguish, on one hand, its influence upon the progress of the individual man, upon his feelings, his faculties, his disposition and passions; nor, on the other, its influence upon the social condition. One party could not imagine that a social system in which were to be found so many noble sentiments, so many virtues, in which were seen sprouting forth the earliest buds of literature and science; in which manners became not only more refined, but attained a certain elevation and grandeur; in such a system they could not imagine that the evil was so great or so fatal as it was made to appear. The other party, seeing but the misery which feudalism inflicted on the great body of the people—the obstacles which it opposed to the establishment of order and liberty—would not believe that it could produce noble characters, great virtues, or any improvement whatsoever. Both these parties have misunderstood the twofold principle of civilization; they have not been aware that it consists of two movements, one of which for a time may advance independently of the other, although after a lapse of centuries, and perhaps a long series of events, they must at last reciprocally recall and bring forward each other.
To conclude, feudalism, in its character and influence, was just what its nature would lead us to expect. Individualism, the energy of personal existence, was the prevailing principle among the vanquishers of the Roman world; and the development of the individual man, of his mind, and faculties, might above all be expected to result from the social system, founded by them and for them. That which man himself carries into a social system, his intellectual moral disposition at the time he enters it, has a powerful influence upon the situation in which he establishes himself—upon all around him. This situation in its turn reacts upon his dispositions, strengthens and improves them. The individual prevailed in German society; and the influence of the feudal system, the offspring of German society, displayed itself in the improvement and advance of the individual. We shall find the same fact to recur in the other elements of our civilization: they all hold faithful to their original principle; they have advanced and pushed the world in that same road by which they first entered. The subject of the next lecture—the history of the Church, and its influence upon European civilization, from the fifth to the twelfth century—will furnish us with a new and striking example of this fact.*
[* ] The detailed accounts of the origin and character of feudalism given in Hallam’s Middle Ages and Guizot’s History of Civilization in France, second course, were for a long time the only ones available in English. The views of neither of these writers, especially as to the origin, are now accepted as satisfactory, though the student who desires to know the earlier theories will always consult them. Adams’s Civilization during the Middle Ages, chapter ix, is highly valuable; hardly less so are chapter xv of Emerton’s Introduction to the Middle Ages, on the origin, and chapter xiv of the same author’s Mediæval Europe, on the character of the feudal institutions. Andrews’s Institutes of General History, chapter vi, is suggestive as a summary, and contains an excellent bibliography. Stubbs’s Constitutional History of England, chapter ix, may also be profitably consulted. All of these later works are based on the researches and conclusions of the German scholars and historians, Waitz, Roth, and Brunner, whose works may perhaps be considered the ultimate authority to-day.
[* ] Even when feudalism was at its height, and disunity in the state seemed the greatest, the theory was preserved of a central power, the king, exercising the sovereign authority to which all other elements in the feudal state were directly or indirectly subject. This idea never entirely disappeared, however faint and obscure it may seem at times to have been.
[* ] This little group is the unit, but the “feudal system” included also the idea of a bond connecting the various units or groups. Each possessor of a fief was bound by personal and property ties to the person from whom he held his fief, and in turn often had other lesser vassals attached to himself by a similar tie. Between vassals of the same suzerain there was always much of common interest. To speak of a single group, such as is described in the lecture, as constituting or typifying the “feudal system,” is not entirely accurate.
[* ] It must always be understood, of course, that all of the importance and power that attached to him was by virtue of his proprietorship of the fief, and disappeared with the loss of the fief.
[* ] The primitive Germans undoubtedly had an extremely high respect for women, though it cannot be shown that they surpassed other races of the Aryan family in this regard.
[* ] When the system became generally established these duties and obligations were definitely fixed. The vassal owed service; the lord owed protection. The vassal’s duty consisted in military service, personally and with a definite retinue, for a fixed period, not usually exceeding forty days; attendance upon the lord’s court and council; the payment to the lord for particular purposes, of certain special sums of money, known as “aids,” “fines,” and “reliefs.” Refusal or omission by the vassal to fulfil these duties rendered the fief liable to forfeiture. The obligations of the lord were to protect the vassal from outside enemies, to refrain from violence against him, and to grant him lawful justice. Failure in these obligations released the vassal permanently or temporarily from his allegiance.
[* ] Each possessor of a fief, of course, “had the power to enforce his will upon others”—i. e., his villeins and serfs; but over these possessors themselves, who were at once vassals of those above and suzerains of those below them, there was no one powerful enough to assert and enforce his will. The weakness of this central or general power in the state was the strength of feudalism. When the central political and social force arose the feudal system fell.
[* ] The fundamentals of chivalry are traceable to the early German ideas of personal bravery, fondness for feats of arms, and respect for woman, together with regard for the oppressed and unfortunate, inculcated by Christianity. It became a formal institution wherever feudalism existed, while the Crusades aided its development by giving opportunity for its practice. Sons of noblemen were trained in its ceremonies and ideas, and at the age of twenty-one were knighted. Its bad feature was that it fostered aristocracy, and that its external forms covered many excesses and vices. Its spirit, its ideal of life, manners, and character, have had a large subsequent influence in the development of modern manhood.
[* ] To say that the progress of society was opposed by feudalism is but to affirm that the German peoples of the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries were not ready for more advanced political and social institutions, for the establishment of any government that would materially lessen their individual liberty. The feudal system gave scope for that liberty; it was suited to the condition of the people. On the other hand, centralized government was not an original Teutonic institution. The Teutonic mind had to be made ready for it. That very process of preparation constituted social progress. The feudal system was not so much an obstacle to the progress of society as it was a necessary intermediate stage before the more evident and rapid progress toward orderly government and society that came in the following centuries.
[* ] The feudal system as a fully organized institution was hardly found outside of the limits of the empire established by Charlemagne, which included France, Germany, and Italy; it was carried, with modifications, into England. In France and Germany it attained its fullest development, and its effects continued there longer than elsewhere. From the ninth to the twelfth century it flourished in its completest form, but the germs of the system are found several centuries earlier.
Feudalism was a governmental and social system based upon three essential ideas, and marked by one universal peculiarity. The latter was the absence of any strong central power in the state; the former were: (1) a peculiar kind of land tenure, (2) a peculiar personal relation existing between different classes in society, and (3) special rights and powers of government and sovereignty exercised by the holders of land over those residing on it. The first two of these are separately traceable to a far earlier period; their union was the special characteristic of the feudal system.
The disorders of the eighth and ninth centuries in the Frankish monarchy and the Holy Roman Empire gave cause for the establishment of feudalism. Royalty could not fulfill the duties which it undertook, and the protection which the nominal head of the state could not give was sought elsewhere. On the verge of complete disintegration society seized hold of certain customs that had existed for centuries, organized them into a rough system, and thus established a new kind of government. The absence of a strong central power occasioned the feudal system. Until that central power was made strong, feudalism lasted; with its upbuilding, feudalism fell. The two were incompatible.
The real basis of the system was the form of land tenure upon which were built certain rights, duties, and powers of individuals. The origin of the fief, as an estate held by feudal tenure was called, is found in the Roman custom, by which, in the later days of the empire, the owner of a small estate surrendered it to a more powerful neighbor, and received it back without rent and for an indefinite period, on a sort of lease that was terminable at the will of the owner. This tenure was known as the precarium, and later as a benefice. Under it, while the title of the occupant was not that of an owner, he was yet more amply protected against violence in turbulent times and secured in his occupancy by the superior influence and power of the one from whom he held the land. The German conquerors, in overrunning the empire, took a large part of the soil to their own use and granted it to their followers. In doing so they applied this Roman custom of the precarium, which they found in the territory. At the outset and for a long time thereafter this land tenure carried no personal relation, and involved no obligation of personal service in return.
The second feature in feudalism was the personal relation between different classes—the relation between lord and vassals. The vassal was bound to render fealty and personal service to the lord in return for protection on his part. This relationship, which was a voluntary one, seems also to have been traceable to a Roman institution, that of patron and client, the patrocinium. According to that custom, the wealthy and powerful patron took the weak and landless client under his protection, his patronage, in return for services rendered by the client. The relationship was purely a personal one of protection and service, not altogether unlike that of the German comitatus already described. So long as these two independent customs, traceable to Roman originals, continued separate, as they did for two or three centuries, feudalism was not established. When, however, the holder of a benefice became also a vassal; when the relationship growing from the landholding was united with that growing out of personal fealty, the feudal tenure became established.
During the time of the Merovingians it does not appear that the two ideas were joined, so that while the factors of feudalism existed the system itself had not been produced. Under the Carlovingians many lands were granted as benefices, or fiefs, and these appear to have been made hereditary before the close of the ninth century. During the same period many of the administrative officers, such as dukes and counts, appointed by the kings, impelled thereto by the weakness of the central power, claimed their offices as hereditary, and their respective duchies and counties as fiefs, thus splitting up the state. In these same confused and anarchical times many free proprietors of allodial estates, for the sake of the protection of a stronger authority, since the central government was unequal to the task, gave up their lands to more powerful neighbors and received them back as fiefs. The Church, which had become possessed of vast estates, granted and held many of its lands and offices in this way.
It was during the Carlovingian period, or at least while the Carlovingians were mayors of the palace, that the idea of personal service was connected with the holding of fiefs. Large armies were needed, and in the absence of state revenues the habit grew of granting benefices on condition of military service rendered in return.
Finally, in the same period, the custom was established of granting to the holders of great fiefs complete jurisdiction or sovereignty for civil purposes over their estates. This was commonly done by grants of immunity, as they were called, by which the owner of a fief took the place of the officers of state on his own domain, and administered laws and dispensed justice as an almost independent sovereign. Probably, also, many strong feudal lords usurped the sovereignty without the formality of a grant from the nominal king. When this had become general, and when the custom of subinfeudation had been adopted, a general decentralized system of government built on land tenure had been substituted for the centralized monarchy which Charlemagne had attempted.
It is now possible to see that the essential forms of feudalism were derived from Roman originals, but the force that applied them, modified them, and organized them into a system was the German spirit of independence, and love of individual liberty. Instead of building up a strong central government, the Germans aimed at the establishment of a social system based on the personal relation of man to man, that should permit the fullest freedom to the individual members so far as they possessed land.
The good features of feudalism were beneficial to the feudal lords only, while, as indicated in the lecture, the villeins and entire body of the lower classes were harshly treated. Had a strong, united, central government been possible, feudalism would have been unnecessary; its merit was in keeping society from complete disintegration in theory and in fact, at a time when the tendency was all in that direction.
It began to lose force in the eleventh century, but continued in England until the Wars of the Roses, in Spain till the fifteenth century, while many remnants were left in France till 1789, and in Germany until the present century. The causes of its downfall were the growth of royalty, and of the cities, the development of trade and commerce, and the modification in methods of warfare; in short, it disappeared when civilization advanced beyond the feudal stage. Cf. page 94, note.