Front Page Titles (by Subject) LECTURE 21 - The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe
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LECTURE 21 - François Guizot, The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe 
The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe, trans. Andrew R. Scoble, Introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002).
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Decay of national assemblies under Louis the Débonnair and Charles the Bald. ~ Definitive predominance of the feudal system at the end of the tenth century. ~ Cause of this predominance. ~ Character of feudalism. ~ No trace of true representative government in France, from the fifth to the tenth century.
After the death of Charlemagne, and under Louis the Débonnair, national assemblies were still frequently held. The movement which Charlemagne had begun, had not yet entirely ceased. Unable to create, Louis the Débonnair sought to imitate; at the spring or autumn assemblies, he passed several useful rules, amongst others the capitulary which summoned the scabini, or royal judges, to the Champs de Mai. But the government, even with this sanction, was lifeless and in efficient. The assemblies had been nothing but an instrument of the monarch, and the monarch was now no longer able to make use of them. Their decay was complete under Charles the Bald. They began again to be nothing more than meetings of the bishops and the great lay landowners. There were forty-six assemblies held under Charles the Bald; but they were almost all con fined to the negotiations of the great nobles with the king, respecting their private interests. Such was the progress made by feudalism that the central aristocracy of the great landowners, beneficiaries, and others, dissolved of itself. They isolated themselves from one another in order to exercise, each in his own domains, the almost absolute sovereignty which they had acquired. The fall of the Carlovingians was the work of Hugh Capet alone, and not of an aristocratic coalition. An assembly did not meet, as at the fall of the Merovingians, to elect a new king. Hugh Capet made himself king, and was acknowledged as such, first by the vassals whom he possessed as Duke of France, and afterwards, successively, by the great lords of the kingdom, who remained, nevertheless, almost his equals in power. Then the assemblies almost entirely disappeared, together with every national and central institution; and nearly three centuries elapsed before anything analogous to them was established.
Thus, at the end of the tenth century, of the three systems of institutions which we characterized at the outset, viz.: free institutions, monarchical institutions, and feudal institutions, the last had completely prevailed; the first had perished early, and Charlemagne had vainly attempted to establish the second. The hierarchical organization of the proprietors of estates, and the dislocation of France into as many petty sovereignties as there were proprietors sufficiently strong to be almost independent and absolute masters in their own domains—such was the natural result of the settlement of the Franks in Gaul.
During the five centuries which we have now briefly examined, institutions, customs, and powers appear to be in a constant state of disorder and conflict. The ancient liberties of the Franks, the primitive independence of the warriors, royal authority, the first rudiments of the feudal system—all these different elements present themselves to our view as obscure, incoherent, and in opposition. We pass incessantly from one system to another, from one tendency to another. At the end of the tenth century, the struggle has almost ceased; the mass of the population have fallen into a state of serfage, or become tributary colonists; the possession of fiefs confers a real sovereignty, more or less complete according to the power of the possessor; these petty sovereigns are hierarchically united and constituted by the bonds of suzerainty and vassalage. Nowhere is this bond weaker than between the king and his vassals; for there the pretensions to authority on the one hand, and to independence on the other, are most earnestly contested.
The fundamental characteristics of this state of things are the destruction of all centrality, both national and monarchic; the hierarchical constitution of landed property; the distribution of sovereignty according to the various degrees of this hierarchy; and the servitude or quasi-servitude of the mass of the inhabitants of the country.
I have said that this system was the natural result of the condition of the Franks in Gaul after the conquest; its definitive success is proof of this. Another circumstance, also, may be adduced in evidence. Before the tenth century, we witness the constant struggle and alternating success of free, monarchical, and feudal institutions. The efforts made in favour of the first two systems, although some were supported by the ancient independence of the Franks, and others by the ability of great kings, were unsuccessful,—a more powerful tendency frustrated and overcame them. When the struggle ceased, when the feudal system had fully prevailed, a new conflict almost immediately commenced; the victorious system was attacked: in the inferior classes of society, by the mass of the inhabitants, citizens, colonists, or serfs, who strove to regain some rights, some property, and some liberty; in the superior class, by royalty, which laboured to resume some general sway, and to become once more the centre of the nation. These new efforts were made, not, as during the period from the fifth to the tenth century, in the midst of the confusion arising from the conflict of opposing systems, but in the very interior of a single system, of the system which had prevailed over, and taken possession of, the whole of society. The combatants are no longer free men, uncertain of their position and their rights, who feebly defend the wreck of their ancient existence against the overpowering invasion of the feudal system; they are citizens, colonists, serfs, whose condition is clear and determined, who become in their turn aggressors, and labour to free themselves from the yoke of feudalism. We no longer behold the king uncertain of his authority, and subject to have it unceasingly attacked, not knowing whether he is king or lord, and defending his power against the Leudes, or great landowners, who attempt sometimes to infringe it, and sometimes to set it aside altogether; now it is the chief of the nobles labouring to make himself the king of all, and to convert suzerainty into sovereignty. From the fifth to the tenth century, the feudal system had been in progress, in development, and in aggression. From the eleventh century onwards, this system had to defend itself against the people and the king. The struggle was long, difficult, and terrible; but the results altered with the position of the combatants. In spite of the servitude into which the people fell in the tenth century, from that time forth the enfranchisement of the people made progress. Notwithstanding the impotence of the royal power at the same period, thenceforward the royal power gained ground. No effort was vain, no step was retrograde. That monarchical system which the genius of Charlemagne had been unable to establish, was gradually founded by kings far inferior to Charlemagne. Those ancient liberties, which neither Franks nor Gauls had been able to preserve, were regained piecemeal by the commons and the third estate. During the first period, monarchy and liberty had failed to establish their position; it was destined that monarchy should issue out of feudalism itself, and that emancipation should spring from the bosom of servitude.
With regard to feudalism itself, it is not my intention to sketch its history. I hasten to arrive at that period at which I shall again meet with a nation and a king, and at which endeavours after a free government and a monarchical system will recommence. I will only state here what were the dominant character and general influence of the feudal system, in relation to power and liberty—those two constituent elements of social order.
The feudal system brought the master into close connection with the subject, and the sovereign with those who depended upon him; in this sense it was a cause of oppression and servitude. It is difficult to escape from a power that is ever near, and almost present. The human will is subject to strange caprices, and never is this more frequently exemplified than when the objects on which it acts are in its power. You may breathe a little under an arbitrary power, if it be very lofty and very distant; but if it be at your elbow, you are truly a slave. Local tyranny is the worst of all; though difficult to avoid, it can easily defend itself. A handful of men have often kept the population of a large town in servitude for ages. The citizens, colonists, and serfs felt themselves so grievously oppressed by the feudal lords that they preferred to their absolute power the absolute power of the kings, even with more extensive and irresistible rights than those possessed by the lords. A certain and general despotism has neither the same interest in being tyrannical, nor the same means of oppression. This will explain the intensity of feudal oppression, and the profound hatred which it inspired.
The feudal system placed the inferior near his superior; and, in this sense, it was a principle of dignity and liberty. Many vassals were equal in rank to each other, and on terms of familiarity; frequently the inequality between the superior and inferior was not great, so that the latter was neither humiliated thereby, nor obliged to play the courtier. Protection was a right; the suzerain had absolute need of his vassals. There was no room, in their relations to one another, for servility and baseness of soul. Moreover, the vassals had reasons and means for banding together to defend themselves against oppression; they possessed common rights and interests. The intimacy in which they lived with their lord prevented the feeling of their mutual rights from becoming effaced within them; thus feudal relations are generally full of dignity and high-spiritedness; a noble sentiment, fidelity instead of submission, guides their conduct. Now, wherever a profound moral sentiment exists, it must necessarily call others into action; hence the many splendid and honourable developments of human nature under the feudal system: these developments were concentrated, it is true, within the circle of the lords and vassals; but even that is better than the equal abasement of all under an universal despotism.
Thus, whilst feudalism disregarded and insulted both justice and the dignity of man among the masses whom it claimed as subjects, it respected and developed both among its own hierarchy. In this hierarchy, liberty existed, with all its accompaniments. Below were servitude and its attendant evils, with all the shames that follow in their train.
I may now fearlessly affirm that, in the institutions of the period from the fifth to the tenth century, there is no trace of the representative system. We pass from the independence of individuals, sometimes to the power of the king, sometimes to the predominance of the great landowners. But there is no political organization founded upon ideas of general law and public interest; all institutions have reference to private rights and interests. Two opposite forces are in conflict; there is nothing to reveal the division of powers, and their tendency towards one common object. There are no representatives of the rights of all; none elected in the name of the interests of all; those who have rights exercise them personally; those who do not exercise them personally do not possess them. The ecclesiastics alone preserve the idea of the general right of all men to justice and to good government; but this idea is not transfused into any institutions. Neither the philosophic principle, nor any of the true external characteristics of representative government, can anywhere be met with.1
[1. ]This is the conclusion of a long discussion that started from the assumption that true liberty cannot exist in the infancy of society. Guizot is keen on pointing out that there is no trace of the principle of representative government in the general assemblies of the Germanic tribes, since they were based on the principle of individual right (might), not upon any ideas of general law and public interest.