Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IV.: HOW THE SAME INSTITUTIONS HAD BEEN ESTABLISHED OVER NEARLY ALL EUROPE, AND WERE EVERY WHERE FALLING TO PIECES. - The Old Regime and the Revolution
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CHAPTER IV.: HOW THE SAME INSTITUTIONS HAD BEEN ESTABLISHED OVER NEARLY ALL EUROPE, AND WERE EVERY WHERE FALLING TO PIECES. - Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution 
The Old Regime and the Revolution, trans John Bonner (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1856).
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HOW THE SAME INSTITUTIONS HAD BEEN ESTABLISHED OVER NEARLY ALL EUROPE, AND WERE EVERY WHERE FALLING TO PIECES.
THE tribes which overthrew the Roman empire, and eventually constituted modern nations, differed in race, origin, and language; they were alike in barbarism only. They found the empire in hopeless confusion, which they aggravated; and thus, when they settled, each was isolated from the others by the ruins it had made. Civilization was almost extinct. Social order had ceased to exist. International communication was difficult and dangerous. Safety dictated the division of the great European family into a thousand little states, which soon became exclusive and hostile to each other.
Yet out of this chaos uniform laws suddenly issued.
They were not borrowed from Roman legislation. They were, indeed, so much opposed to it that the old Roman law was the instrument afterward used to transform and abolish them.a Their principles were original, and wholly different from any that had ever been broached before. Composed of symmetrical parts, knit together as closely as the articles of any modern code, they constituted a body of really learned laws for the use of a semi-barbarous people.
It is not my design to inquire how such a system was formed and spread over Europe. I merely note the fact that, during the Middle Ages, it existed to some extent in every country; and in many, to the total exclusion of all other systems.
I have had occasion to study the political institutions which flourished in England, France, and Germany during the Middle Ages. As I advanced in the work, I have been filled with amazement at the wonderful similarity of the laws established by races so far apart and so widely different. They vary constantly and infinitely, it is true, in matters of detail, but in the main they are identical every where. Whenever I discovered in the old legislation of Germany a political institution, a rule, or a power, I knew that a thorough search would bring something similar to light in France and England; and I never failed to find it so. Each of the three nations enabled me to understand the other two.
In all three the government was carried on in accordance with the same principles: the political assemblies were constituted from the same materials, and armed with the same powers; society was divided into the same classes, on the same sliding-scale; the nobles occupied the same rank, enjoyed the same privileges, were marked by the same natural characteristics—in short, the men were, properly speaking, identically the same in all.
The city constitutions resembled each other; the rural districts were governed on one uniform plan. There was no material difference in the condition of the peasantry; land was held, occupied, cultivated on the same plan, and the farmer paid the same taxes. From the confines of Poland to the Irish Sea we can trace the same seigniories, seigniors’ court, feuds, rents, feudal services, feudal rights, corporate bodies. Sometimes the names are the same, and, what is still more remarkable, the same idea pervades all these analogous institutions. I think it is safe to say that in the fourteenth century the various social, political, administrative, judicial, economical, and literary institutions of Europe were more nearly alike than they are now, though civilization has done so much to facilitate intercourse and efface national barriers.
The task I have undertaken does not require me to relate how this old constitution of Europe gradually gave way and broke down; I merely state that in the eighteenth century it was in proximate ruin every where.b Decay was least conspicuous in the eastern half of the continent, and most in the west; but old age and decrepitude were prominent on all sides.
The records of the old Middle-Age institutions contain the history of their decline. It is well known that land registers (terriers) were kept in each seigniory, in which, century after century, were entered the boundaries of the feuds and seigniories, the rents due, the services to be rendered, the local customs. I have seen registers of the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries, which are masterpieces of method, perspicuity, and intellect. The more modern ones grow more obscure, more incomplete, more confused as they approach our own day. It would seem as though the civilization of society had involved the relapse of the political system into barbarism.
The old European constitution was better preserved in Germany than in France; but there, too, a portion of the institutions to which it had given life were already destroyed. One can judge of the ravages of time, however, better from the portion which survived than from that which had perished.
Of the municipal franchises which, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, had converted the chief cities of Germany into rich and enlightened republics,c a mere empty shadow remained. Their enactments were unrepealed; their magistrates bore the old titles, and appeared to perform the old duties; but the activity, the energy, the civic patriotism, the manly and fruitful virtues of olden time had vanished. These venerable institutions seemed to have sunk down without distortion.
All the surviving mediæval sources of authority had suffered from the same disease; all alike were decayed and languishing. Nor was this all: every thing which, without actually growing out of the mediæval system, had been connected with it and marked by its stamp, seemed equally lifeless. Aristocracy wore an air of servile debility. Even political freedom, which had filled the Middle Ages with its works, became sterile in the dress in which they had clothed it. Those provincial assemblies which had preserved their old constitution in its integrity were rather a hindrance than a help to civilization. They presented a stolid, impenetrable front to the march of intellect, and drove the people into the arms of monarchs. There was nothing venerable in the age of these institutions; the older they grew, the smaller their claims to respect; and somehow, the more harmless they became, the more hatred they seemed to inspire. A German writer, whose sympathies were all on the side of the old regime under which he lived, says, “The present state of things is shameful for all of us, and even contemptible. It is strange how unfavorably men look upon every thing that is old. Novelty penetrates even the family circle, and overturns its peace. Our very housekeepers want to get rid of their old furniture.” Yet in Germany, as in France, society was then thrilling with activity, and highly prosperous; but (mark this well! it is the finishing touch to the picture) every living, acting, producing agent was new, and not only new, but contrary to the old.
Royalty had nothing in common with mediæval royalty; its prerogatives were different, its rank had changed, its spirit was new, the homage it received was unusual. The central power encroached on every side upon decaying local franchises. A hierarchy of public functionaries usurped the authority of the nobles. All these new powers employed methods and took for their guide principles which the Middle Ages either never knew or rejected, and which, indeed, were only suitable for a state of society they never conceived.
At first blush it would appear that the old constitution of Europe is still in force in England; but, on a closer view, this illusion is dispelled. Forget old names, pass over old forms, and you will find the feudal system substantially abolished there as early as the seventeenth century: all classes freely intermingled, an eclipsed nobility, an aristocracy open to all, wealth installed as the supreme power, all men equal before the law, equal taxes, a free press, public debates—phenomena which were all unknown to mediæval society. It was the skillful infusion of this young blood into the old feudal body which preserved its life, and imbued it with fresh vitality, without divesting it of its ancient shape. England was a modern nation in the seventeenth century, though it preserved, as it were embalmed, some relies of the Middle Ages.
This hasty glance at foreign nations was essential to a right comprehension of the following pages. No one can understand the French Revolution without having seen and studied something more than France.
[Note a, page 29.]influence of the roman law in germany.—how it had replaced the germanic law.
[Note b, page 3.]transition from feudal to democratic monarchy.
[Note c, page 32.]decline of free german cities.—imperial cities (Reichstadten).