FEUDALISM

[Dana Carleton Munro, The Middle Ages, 395-1272 (New York: The Century Company, 1921), 126-137]

Gradual Evolution. During the period which has been the subject of the preceding chapters there had been a gradual evolution in the social and political institutions which resulted in what is now called feudalism. In order to understand the process and its outcome, it is necessary to regroup and restate some of the facts already mentioned.

Beginnings Under Roman Rule. In the Roman society at the beginning of the fifth century there was no civil equality of persons and the lower classes of freemen had fallen almost completely under the power of the nobles. Some of the small land-holders had been violently dispossessed. Frequently poor men with small farms had been compelled to place themselves under the patronage (patrocinium) of some wealthy and powerful neighbor in order to secure protection or to escape the burdensome taxation; such protection the powerful man was usually willing to grant, but as payment for his patronage he required the transfer to himself of the title to the land which the poorer man had owned; usually the former owner, as long as he lived, was allowed the usufruct or tenure of the land. Thus the land was passing into the hands of the nobles, and the latter frequently had more than their coloni and slaves could cultivate. Consequently, rather than let it lie idle, they often granted the request (precarious) of a poor man for the use of some land. Usually there was no payment demanded, but on the other hand the grant could be terminated at any moment when the owner desired, so the user had a precarious tenure. The patrocinium and precarium became well established, and on each estate the inhabitants looked to the proprietor for protection and the means of earning a livelihood. Consequently it was natural that the administration of justice should also fall into the hands of the proprietors, and many of them possessed a de facto private jurisdiction in their villas during the later decades of the Roman rule.

Decline of Cities. While the power of the nobles was increasing, the cities (the urban centers of the civitates) were losing their importance. The citizens had been deprived of almost all their privileges and were being crushed by taxation. As the villas were practically self-supporting they offered no market for the products of the cities. The migrations brought in a ruling class of a lower civilization who felt little need of the Roman manufactures, and the disorders incident to the presence of the barbarians made travel dangerous, so that commerce between the different portions of the Empire was greatly hindered. The cities became smaller and their inhabitants were forced to turn to agriculture for a larger portion of their living.

Effects of Migrations. After the Germans had become the masters in Gaul, some Roman nobles retained their possessions and became companions and officials of the barbarian rulers. Some lands were confiscated by the invaders and distributed among the companions of the kings, in return for military service or other duties. In either case the tenants and small holders depended almost wholly upon the great proprietors for protection and livelihood, and had to serve them in return. From the time of the migrations onward, warfare was constant. At first the wealthy Roman aristocrats had to maintain fighting men in their service in order to defend themselves. All of the Germans, and later all men who were wealthy enough, had to serve in the king's army for several months each year at their own expense. These were the general conditions during all the time from the fifth to the tenth century, and it was in this framework that the kings were obliged to carry on their functions.

German Factors. The customs which had prevailed under the Roman rule were not unlike some of the German customs, and the new institutions which grew out of the fusion have long been a bone of contention between the different schools of historians. One school lays stress upon the Roman origins and shows how vassalage and fiefs developed from the patrocinilfm and precarious; the other school derives the vassal relation from the German cogitates 1 and points out that the land relation in the fief is the natural outcome of the idea of a gift among the primitive Germans, who were like children, ready to give away anything which they did not desire at the moment, but feeling that they had a perfect right to reclaim the gift if they wanted it. Consequently when the land was distributed among the followers of a German king they had only the tenure and not the ownership, which still was vested theoretically in the king.

Private Jurisdictions. The prevalence of the private jurisdictions may have been an outgrowth of the Roman customs or it may have been due to the grants of immunity on the part of the German kings. By the terms of a typical formula all royal officials were forbidden to enter any of the property of the abbot or bishop, who was the recipient of the grant of immunity, either for the purpose of hold ing court or exacting fines; all receipts from the courts were turned over to the abbot or bishop. These privileges were fre quently sought because of oppression by some officialXof the king. The bishops and abbots wished to be dependent only upon the king and thus to escape responsibility to the local count; and the king was generally willing to grant such a request because it did not cost him much, usually only a part of the court fines, and it did restrict the power of his often unruly subordinate. In order to protect the holder of the immunity the king usually appointed an official, who was called the advocate, to see that the privilege was respected; very frequently this advocate ended by usurping power over the estate. Laymen were seldom granted immunities, but the more powerful and more wealthy had continued to exer cise or had usurped private jurisdiction over their estates, very similar to that conferred by a definite grant, and in 614 A.D. these de facto privileges were recognized by royal edict under the name of potentates.

Commendation. These private jurisdictions are symptomatic of the general change which had been going on throughout the society, even be fore the migrations. In place of the old relation between the state and the individual, or between the clan and its members, obligations between man and man had become common. The protection which the poor man had been obliged to seek from the wealthy man had come to be recognized under the name of com mendation, and the universality of this relation is indicated by the formulas of the seventh century. A typical one reads: "To that magnificent lord so and so, I, so and so. Since it is known familiarly to all how little I have whence to feed and clothe myself, I have therefore petitioned your piety, and your good will has decreed to me that I should hand myself over or commend myself to your guardianship, which I have thereupon done; that is to say in this way, that you should aid and succor me as well with food as with clothing, according as I shall be able to serve you and deserve it. And as long as I shall live I ought to provide service and honor to you, suitably to my free condition; and I shall not during the time of my life have the ability to withdraw from your power or guardianship; but must remain during the days of my life under your power or defense. Wherefore it is proper that if either of us shall wish to withdraw himself from these agreements, he shall pay so many shillings to the other party (pari suo), and this agreement shall remain unbroken." It will be noted that the commendation differs from the patrocinitem; the latter carried with it an idea of degradation for the weaker man, the commendation seems to maintain more of the dignity of the comitatus relationship.

Permanence of Relationship. References in the capitularies show that this custom of commendation was widespread in the Frankish Empire by the year 8I6, if not earlier. In the latter year Louis the Pious decreed: " If any one shall wish to leave his lord (seniorem), and is able to prove against him one of these crimes, that is, in the first place. if the lord has wished to reduce him unjustly into servitude; in the second place, if he has taken counsel against his life; in the third place, if the lord has committed adultery with the wife of the vassal; in the fourth place, if he has wilfuly attacked him with a drawn sword; in the fifth place, if the lord has been able to bring defense to his vassal after he has commended his hands to him, and has not done so; it is allowed to the vassal to leave him. If the lord has perpetrated anything against the vassal in these five points it is allowed the vassal to leave him." But otherwise, not; vassalage was a permanent relationship.

Universality. In the year 847, by the capitulary of Mersen, the three sons of Louis the Pious attempted, for administrative purposes, to compel all freemen who had not already commended themselves to enter into such a relation. " We will, moreover, that each free man in our kingdom shall choose a lord, from us or our faithful, such a one as he wishes. We command moreover that no man shall leave his lord without just cause, nor should any one receive him, except in such a way as was customarv in the time of our predecessors." For greater ease in administration many pub lic services, such as the leading of the men to the army, were in trusted by the Carolingians to the seniores, or lords. More and more the king ceased to have relations with the majority of the inhabitants of his kingdom except indirectly through the lords, and it came to be considered the duty of the average man to obey his lord rather than the more remote authority of the king; in fact, the average man had no duties toward the central govern ment except through his lord.

Benefice. Land-holding had been undergoing an analogous change. Almost all of the land had passed into the hands of a comparatively small number of owners, who, in order to have it cultivated and to secure followers, had granted out portions to individuals. At first these grants were usually for a short term, frequently of five years, and were called precariae, although the conditions were different from those in the older precaria. Later it came to be the custom to grant the land for a lifetime, or even for the period of two or more lives, and such grants were called benefices. The holder of the benefice had the use of the land and was expected in return to make some payment, usually small, and to give personal services when called upon; but his burdens were relatively light and he received protection from the stronger man, so that not a few land-owners preferred to hand over their property in order to better their own condition. Sometimes such a change of ownership was forced upon them by the stronger party. A typical formula of the seventh century reads, in part, as follows:

Formula. "I have settled in my mind that I ought, for the good of my soul, to make a gift of something from my possessions, which I have therefore done. And this is what I hand over, in the district named so and so, in the place of which the name is such and such, all those possessions of mine which there my father left me at his death and which as against my brothers or as against my co-heirs the lot legitimately brought me in the division; or those which I was able afterward to add to them in any way, in their whole completeness, that is to say the courtyard with its buildings, with slaves, houses, lands cultivated and uncultivated, meadows, woods, waters, mills, etc. These, as I have said before, with all the things adjacent or appurtenant to them, I hand over to the church which was built in honor of such and such a saint, to the monastery which is called so and so, where such and such an abbot is acknowledged to rule regularly over God's flock; on these conditions, viz: That so long as life remains in my body, the possessions above described I shall receive from you as a benefice for usufruct, and the due payment I will make to you and your successors each year, that is so and so much. And my son shall have the same possessions for the days of his life only, and shall make the above-named payment; and if my children should survive me they shall have the same possessions during the days of their life and shall make the same payment; and if God shall give me a son from a legitimate wife, he shall have the same possessions for the days of his life only, after the death of whom the same possessions with all their improvements shall return to your part to be held forever; and if it shall be my chance to beget sons from a legitimate marriage, these shall hold the same possessions after my death, making the above named payment, during the time of their lives. If not, however, after my death, without tergiversation of any kind, by right of your authority the same possession shall revert to you to be retained forever."

Weakness of Central Government. It is evident that these private relations must have encroached decidedly upon the power of the central government. The Roman emperors had attempted to check the practice of commendation and the growth of private jurisdictions. The Merovingians apparently did not realize the danger; they thought of their kingdom as private property and made grants freely to favorites or to gain friends. In order to hold such a society together and to make his power effective a very strong monarch was needed. In western Europe such men were rare; during all of this period the kings were frequently weak and the power gradually slipped from their hands. In the seventh century the decay of the royal authority in Gaul was comparatively rapid, although checked for a time by the rise of the strong mayors of the palace. But the latter often had to buy support from their nobles and in times of great stress found their own resources entirely inadequate. Thus Charles Martel had been compelled to use some lands of the church in order to equip an army of cavalry to serve against the Mussulmans, in 732. Charles the Great had arrested the decay and had apparently built up a strong centralized monarchy; but he had exhausted the strength of the freemen by long and continuous campaigns, and in order to make the administration more easy he had actually sanctioned the causes of the decay of the royal power, so that after him its ultimate ruin seems to have been inevitable. In the oath of 802, which Charles required all of his subjects to take, more stress apparently was laid upon Charles' position as overlord than upon his rights as king or emperor.

Strength of Hereditary Offlcials. Like his Merovingian predecessors, Charles the Great delegated authority to the counts, and in any district, during the absence of the king, the count had practically all of the power in his own hands; he maintained order, held the courts, raised and led the army, and published any new edicts of the king. Under the Merovingians these counts had held only a temporary position; under the Carolingians they generally held office for a number of years and the son often succeeded to the father; at the assembly of Kiersey, in 877, it was recognized by Charles the Bald and his nobles that this hereditary succession was the general rule. The powers which they had possessed as deputies of the king were gradually usurped by the officials for their own advantage; they no longer transmitted to the king the major part of the fines levied in the courts but kept all for themselves; when the king summoned them to lead their contingents of sol diers to his army they obeyed or not, according to their own interests; in all their acts they were governed mainly by the ability, or inability, of the king to enforce obedience.

Usurpations by Local Officials. To intensify all the difficulties came the invasions: by the Northmen on the north and the west, by the Saracens on the south, and by the Slavs on the east. Against these dangers the kings were powerless to protect their subjects; each district had to depend upon itself in times of emergency, and the strong man, whether count, bishop, or abbot, naturally came to the front and became recognized as the real power in his locality. For the defense of his property he built a castle of wood which was not very unlike an ordinary blockhouse on the American frontier, and was defended by a wall or stockade of logs sur rounded by a ditch. To these fortifications the people fled in times of invasion; for the protection which they rendered to the people the lords of these castles demanded services. Because of this the strong man in each district generally came to be the lord of the freemen in that district; usually also he granted land to followers as benefices and usurped or obtained private juris diction over his lands and men.

The Fief. The conjunction of the vassal-relationship, of the land-tenure, and of the private jurisdiction, marks the character of feudalism in the west of Europe. It takes its name from the feodum, the fief of land, which was the essential unit. This differed only in one respect from a benefice--it was transmitted by hereditary right from generation to generation; gradually the same came to be true of a benefice, and the two terms were often used inter changeably. The vassal, or holder of a fief, had private jurisdic tion over the land which he did not actually own, but of which T he had the usufruct and for which he paid services to the lord from whom he held it. While a fief usually was a tract of land, it might be anything which would bring in an income, and es pecially any grant in the nature of a monopoly: e. g., an office, either administrative or judicial, the right to levy tolls at a bridge, a mill or a bakery which the people of the neighborhood had to patronize, the tithes of a church, half the bees in the woods of Champagne. Sometimes, especially in the thirteenth century and later, a fief might consist of a sum of money which the vassal received each year from his lord, i. e., wages or salary, as it would be termed now. Whatever the fief might be, the services owed by the vassal were practically the same: they consisted of military, judicial, civil, and pecuniary obligations.

Feudal Relations Become All-Important. The later Carolingian kings had retained little of the authority of Charles the Great. They still had great pretentions to power but their actual position had changed. The lords not only had private jurisdiction over their own estates, but they had also Dound themselves together, voluntarily or involuntarily, by a network of relations, based upon land-holding, so that they owed services and protection to one another on account of the fiefs which they held. While theoretically they were subjects of the king, practically only those paid him service who held land directly from him. At the close of the tenth century there were several thousand fiefs in the kingdom of France, which were very unequal in size; there were only about forty great lords as distinguished from the multitude of petty fief-holders. Around these great proprietors lesser men had grouped themselves, and frequently the same individual held land from two or more lords; consequently all the nobles were bound together by their feudal relations, and except as the king entered into the system, through land-granting or land-holding, he had no actual duties to the people of his kingdom, or rights over them. Personal relations, generally based upon land-holding between lords and vassals, supplanted the duties and rights incident to citizenship or to membership in the tribe or state.

Customs. Although the customs of feudalism were going through a continuous evolution and the incidents varied not only from county to county, but also from fief to fief, it seems best to give a general statement at this point. It is important to remember, however, that any such general statement must be wrong in some details and that some of the countries came under the feudal regime much later than others. Yet a composite picture may be drawn which will not be incorrect in its main outlines.

Homage and Fealty. The contract which held together the members of the feudal society was entered into through the act of fealty. The man who was to receive a fief or benefice knelt before the lord bareheaded and without his sword, and placing his hands within the hands of the lord made a formal promise. He declared that he became the lord's man, or vassal, for all the days of his life, and would defend the lord against "all men who may live or die." The lord then raised him up, kissed him on the mouth, and declared that he accepted him as a vassal. This act of homage was usually followed by the oath of fidelity to the lord, sworn upon the Gospel or some other sacred object. Then the vassal received the investiture of the fief, usually by some symbolic act, such as a stroke " with a little rod." This bond entailed definite obligation for both parties, which also gave certain rights to each. The lord, theoretically, was bound to protect his vassal, secure justice for him, and give him such aid as he might need. The vassal was to render military and judicial services, to give his counsel and aid to the lord whenever demanded, and, under exceptional circumstances, to make payments in money or kind.

Military Service. Each vassal was required to serve in the lord's army for a fixed period each year, usually forty days. He was obliged to equip himself and to pay his own expenses during this timeif he served longer, the lord was usually expected to pay his expenses. In addition, the vassal was frequently required to do ; castle-ward for a fixed time each year. Sometimes he had to have his wife and children with him while on service in his lord's castle. In this way the lord would have a personal knowledge of the character and qualities of the members of the family, which might be useful to him in connection with some of the rights which are discussed below.

Court Service. The lord had the right to summon his vassals and ask their counsel on any question. In particular, he could require them to assist him in the trial of cases in his court. The vassal also owed suit, i. e., he was expected to bring any law-suit in which he was concerned to the lord's court, where it would be decided by his fellow-vassals and his lord.

Aids. Theoretically, the vassal did not owe any money payments to his lord. As a matter of fact, when he received his fief, he frequently contracted to make an annual payment. A vassal was.also expected to help his lord when the latter had some extraordinary expenses. In such cases his payment was called an aid; gradually the cases in which such an aid might be demanded were fixed by custom, but the custom varied in different countries and even in different fiefs in the same country. The " three chief aids " in Normandy or England were due when the lord's oldest son was knighted, when the lord's oldest daughter was married, and when the lord himself was taken prisoner; in these three cases the vassal had to help pay the expenses, the dowry, or the ransom. In the period of the crusades vassals in France were frequently obliged to pay an " aid " towards the lord's equipment when he went on an expedition to the Holy Land.

Purveyance. Payments in kind were caused partly by the right of purveyance which the lord enjoyed. This required the vassal to board and lodge the lord and his followers for a time. In theory there was at first no limit to this right, but it was so burdensome that it became fixed for each locality either by custom or contract, and it could seldom be exercised more than three times a year, and then only for a given number of followers; often it was restricted to once a year, and both the number of persons and animals and the kinds of food and supplies were stipulated.

Relief. The relief might be paid in kind or in money according to the usage of the fief. It was due whenever there was a new holder of the fief or a new lord, because the feudal bond was thought of as a personal one, and consequently homage and relief were due from each vassal to his lord, and must be renewed whenever there was a new lord. But the relief was a very burdensome payment, often fixed at one year's income from the fief, and there was a tendency to restrict the payment to the occasion either of the change in the vassal or in the lord and not to make it in both cases. The relief in Normandy was a fixed sum of money, and this usage was transferred to England, where the relief was frequently five pounds for each knight's fee. It should be noted here that a knight's fee had come to be a measure and meant such a fief or part of a fief as would furnish sufficient income to support a knight. A noble, for example, might be obliged to pay £I5 relief, because he held a fief equivalent to three knights' fees. There was a tendency to reckon all services in a similar manner. Thus the earl of Clare, on one occasion, paid £94, IIS. Iod. for the aid for the daughter of the king, " for I3I knights and two-thirds of a knight, and a third and a fourth and an eighth and a ninth and a tenth of a knight, and two thirtieths of a knight of his fee; and for nine knights and the fourth part of a knight of the fee of the countess, his wife." And in I272, when the military tenants were summoned to the French army, some would furnish a knight for forty days; others for four, or ten, or twenty, or thirty days, according to the value of their holdings; still others would have to furnish several knights.

Wardship. When a vassal died the relief might be exacted, according to custom, if the heir was of full age; if he was a minor, the lord might take possession of the property and hold it until the end of the minority. In such a case he was exercising the right of wardship. This was the usual custom in Normandy and Eng land; the theory was that the fief owed to the lord the services of a knight, and when the heir could not perform these the lord had a right to the income of the fief. He was, however, expected to provide for the support of the minor and to restore the fief to him when he came of age; then a relief might be demanded and frequently was. The heir to a fief, whether his father was alive or not, was often required to live at the castle of his lord, because he was a useful hostage.

Marriage. In many fiefs the lord must give his consent to the marriage of his vassal or his vassal's oldest son; if there was no son, and a daughter would inherit, then the lord was especially interested in her marriage; for, if she should marry any one hostile to him or whom he could not control, he would lose his property. This right of marriage was lucrative and was sometimes abused; in the English Exchequer Rolls there are very significant en tries, such as, " Hawisa, who was wife of William Fitz Robert, renders account of I30 marks and 4 palfreys that she may have peace from Peter of Borough, to whom the king has given per mission to marry her; and that she may not be compelled to marry ."

Intricacy of Relations. The feudal usages were greatly complicated by the fact that many vassals held from different lords and almost every one was both lord and vassal. Consequently all were bound to gether by an intricate network of duties and rights, and f re quently a vassal owed conflicting services to two or more lords especially when the latter were at war with one another. And the private wars were frequent. Marriages and inheritances were constantly causing the rupture of old feudal bonds and the formation of new. If the king of France married the heiress to a fief held from one of his own vassals, he was supposed to owe to this vassal the services due from his wife's fief.

Lack of Uniformity. Almost the only service which was uniformly demanded of all vassals was the military. And even this varied; while it was usually forty days, in the kingdom of Jerusalem, owing to the conditions there, it might be demanded at any time for any length of time: the formula was that the knight owed one year of military service each year. In France there was a difference of opinion as to the right of a lord to keep his vassal after forty days, even when he was willing to pay the latter. In England the vassals frequently held that they were not required to serve outside the country. The solution of these differences depended mainly upon the relative power of the vassals and of the lords.

Force, the Sanction. For the sanction of the feudal tie rested, in the last analysis, upon force. Whatever the legal theories might be, the vassal usually performed only such services as he felt unable to avoid. His lord might cite him to court, but generally tried to reduce him to submission by a private war. Luchaire has stated for France that " every feudatory was at strife with his different suzerains, with the bishops and abbots with whom he was in contact, with his fellow-vassals, and with his own vassals."

Position of King. Both the king and the church were included in the feudal relations. The king was theoretically the overlord of all the nobles in his kingdom, and this was especially true in England or in the kingdom of Jerusalem, to which the feudal customs had been transplanted. When they had grown up by gradual evolution, as in France, the position of the king was less clearly recognized. While a certain sanctity was associated with the kingship, the French monarch owed his actual power to his feudal vassals and his feudal holdings. This continued to be true until the rise of the cities introduced a new element, which generally sided with the king.

Position of Church Officials. The bishops and abbots held a vast extent of property which had been gradually acquired by the church. Since the days of Charles the Great these high churchmen had been considered officials of the king, did homage to him and received from him the investiture of their fiefs. They were required to lead their contingent of troops to the king's host and to perform many of the other feudal obligations. They, in turn, granted many fiefs from their lands, and consequently had many vassals who owed them the regular feudal incidents.

The Peasants. Thus far only the two estates, the nobility and the clergy, have been considered. But feudal society was supported by the labor of the peasants, who formed an integral part of the feudal group. They were said to hold their land by servile tenure because their primary duty was not fighting. They owed to their lord many services analogous to the feudal incidents, and might even be called out to fight. Their lot will be described later.


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