Oliver J. (Oliver Joseph) Thatcher.

A short history of mediæval Europe online

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relations are expressed by the phrase "feudal tenure of
land," the theory underlying which was that the tenant or
holder of any piece of land had only the use of it, for
which he must pay certain dues as rent, to the man (lord
or suzerain) from whom he had received it. Property in
land was not absolute, but of a beneficiary nature ; that is,
the holder had only the benefits of the use of it, not the
land itself. In theory the land belonged to God, who let
it to the king, who, in turn, sublet it to his great vassals,
and these then parcelled it out to their subjects.

The general word expressing the social relations is iixasr ■
salage," which indicates the personal relation and bond
existing between the man who thus held the land and the
man from whom he had received it. It conveys on the
side of the vassal the idea of social inferiority and the obli-
gation to perform certain services for his lord.

The political relations are expressed by the word "im-
munity," which means that the holder of an estate is, in
the matter of its government, free from all interference on
the part of his lord ; that is, with the use of the land he
also received from his lord the right, within his own terri-
tory, to perform the judicial, executive, and even, to some^
extent, the legislative functions of government, and in the



Feudalism 115

ordinary exercise of these functions he is free from all inter-
ference on the part of his lord. He is, therefore, on his
own domain, to all intents and purposes, and, within cer-
tain limits, an independent king.

These three things — feudal tenure, vassalage, and immu-
nity — are the essential features of feudalism.

This condition of affairs was the outcome of the chaos of Origin of
the two centuries which followed the death of Karl the ^" ^ '^"''
Great. Not even he had been able wholly to centralize
the power, and to sustain a personal relation to all his sub-
jects. He struggled during all his reign against the ten-
dency to separation, and the ambitious efforts of various
parts of his Empire to achieve local independence. The
machinery of his government was not inherently weak;
it needed only a strong and vigorous man to conduct it.
Under his successors, in the ninth and tenth centuries, be-
cause of their weakness, and the struggles of rebellious
sons and nobles, his Empire broke up into many pieces.
There was no one to enforce the laws and preserve or-
der, since the Emperor was too weak to do so. Men found
that they could break the laws, therefore, with impunity.
The strong oppressed the weak, seized their goods, their
lands, and even their persons, forcing them into the posi-
tion of vassals or serfs. This is the period of violence and
usurpations, or wliat the Germans most appropriately call
" Faustrecht," or fist right ; the man with the strong arm
might do whatever he chose. The wheels of government
stopped, and the people had, therefore, to take care of
themselves. Duruy has well stated this point: ''Roy-
alty no longer performed the duties for which it was insti-
tuted, and protection, which could not be obtained from
the nominal bead of the state, was now sought from the
bishops, counts, barons, and all powerful men." Their
attempts to take care of themselves resulted in a compli-

Ii6 A Short History of Mediceval Europe

Office and
lands become

lands become

cated set of customs and practices, the sum of which was
feudahsm. The weak man, in order that he might not
be utterly destroyed by the violence of those who were
stronger than he, often willingly surrendered all that he
had to some bishop or count, put himself under his protec-
tion, and assumed the vassal relation. The violence and
chaos of the ninth and tenth centuries produced these
changes and brought about this condition of affairs. There
were many customs prevalent among the peoples of Europe
before the ninth century, which furnished certain elements
of feudalism, but they were not what produced it. Such
things as the German '' comitatus," or " Gefolge," and
the Gallic "commendation," undoubtedly were prototypes
of some of the feudal customs, but these would not have
developed into feudalism if it had not been for the chaotic
economic, social, and political condition of Europe in those
two centuries.

Under Karl the Great the tenure of office had depended
upon his will ; under his successors, many of the imperial
and royal officials declared that they not only held their
offices by a life tenure, but that these were also hereditary
in their family. These claims they were able to make good
in spite of the imperial opposition. In this way the judicial,
executive, and legislative functions of the central govern-
ment were usurped. Karl the Great had rewarded his offi-
cials with gifts of lands. Under his successors, all the
holders of such lands succeeded in making their possessions
hereditary in their family, while still recognizing the Em-
peror as the actual possessor of them.

Many who held land by the allodial (freehold or fee sim-
ple) tenure were deprived of their lands by force and re-
duced to the position of vassals. Others, when they saw
themselves exposed to so great danger, bought protection by
offering to surrender their lands to some lord on the condi-

Feudalism wj

tion that he would protect them and permit them, as his
tenants or vassals, to hold the same lands. In a former chap-
ter attention has been called to the fact that under the Em-
perors of the sixth and seventh centuries, such a process was
going on because of the heavy taxation and the oppression
by the government. Previously all land had been held by
the allodial tenure, but gradually this was so thoroughly
changed that by the end of the twelfth century the prin-
ciple was generally acknowledged that all land must have a
feudal lord and be held by the feudal tenure. In the thir-
teenth century there was very little land in western and
northern Europe held in any other way. Fiefs and vas-
salage, therefore, arose from grants, usurpations, seizures,
and voluntary surrender.

Since feudalism grew out of the chaos of the times, it Feudalism not
could hardly be expected that it would have a uniform char- ^ ^^^ '^'"'
acter. In fact, the feudalism of one province differed from
that of another. In the general stress and danger each one
made such terms as he could with his lord. Feudalism is
not a system, therefore ; it is as chaotic and irregular as the
period in which it arose. To almost every general state-
ment about it exceptions could be found. Classifications
are impossible, because of the great and numerous varia-
tions which are everywhere met with. It is a misnomer to
speak of the feudal " system," since by that word the idea
is conveyed that it is an orderly and uniform set of customs
and regulations.

A great step toward better things was taken when Henry
III. declared himself to be guardian of the public peace, or
" peace of the land," and threatened to punish all who dis-
turbed it. By this means private warfare was greatly lim-
ited. The chaos and anarchy of the ninth and tenth cen-
turies yielded to regularity and order. The customs were
more fixed and better observed. Feudalism became less

1 1 8 A Short History of Mediceval Europe

The Church
and Feudal-

Feudal terms.

chaotic, and society, therefore, more stable ; violence be-
came less and security greater ; travel was possible because
of the greater safety along the highways. The effect was
seen at once in the steady revival of commerce, Avhich be-
came more pronounced as the eleventh century advanced.

The Church was completely drawn into feudal relations.
In those days of violence and rapine, the robber and plun-
derer had little or no regard for the property of the Church,
or the lives of the churchmen. Churches and monasteries
were, therefore, compelled to seek protection, just as indi-
viduals were. The bishop or priest, for his church or dio-
cese, and the abbot or prior, for his monastery, surrendered
the church's or monastery's property to some lord and re-
ceived them back in return for the payment of certain rents
and dues. Such churches and monasteries were legally
feudal individuals, and were, of course, required to perform
all feudal duties. The lands, indeed, belonged to the
Church, and, theoretically, could not be alienated from the
Church and ecclesiastical uses. As late as the eleventh cen-
tury it was not at all uncommon for the clergy to marry.
Since fiefs were hereditary, it seemed perfectly proper that
their children should be provided for out of the Church
lands which they held. But, unless all their children be-
came clergymen, these Church lands would pass into the
hands of laymen and therefore be lost to the Church. One
of the purposes of the prohibition of the marriage of the
clergy was to prevent this alienation and diminution of the
Church lands.

The land, office, or any right or privilege granted and
held as indicated above was called a fief, feud, or benefice.
The lord, liege, or suzerain, was the one who granted a fief.
The receiver of it was his vassal or liege-man. Subinfeu-
dation was the regranting of a fief by a vassal to a third per-
son, who, therefore, became a vassal to a vassal. In con-

Feudalism 119

nection with the infeudation of a fief there were certain
rights and ceremonies called homage ; kneeling with uncov-
ered head, folded hands, and sword ungirt before his pro-
spective lord, the vassal made a set speech in which he
vowed that he would become the lord's " man " and per-
form all the duties which this relation demanded. The lord
then raised him, received his oath of fidelity, and by a sym-
bolic act (usually the presentation of a sword, standard,
sceptre, ring, staff, a bit of earth or a twig) invested him
with the possession of the fief in question.

The one great duty of the lord to his vassal was to pro-
tect him. The lord must avenge his vassal's wrongs, de-
fend him in all his privileges, and secure him justice in all
matters. The vassal, on the other hand, owed his lord
service, which might be of various kinds. Military service Noble or mili-
was, in some respects, the most important, and in accord-
ance with the ideas of the times was regarded as noble.
Service in labor, gifts, money, and produce, was regarded
as menial or ignoble. Military service in the days of Karl
the Great had been required of all freemen. The army was
composed of the whole people under arms. As the use of
cavalry was introduced and became general, and the prac-
tice of wearing armor universal, it became impossible for
everyone to equip himself with the required paraphernalia.
Continuous and far-distant campaigns made it necessary for
many people to remain at home to till the soil. Karl the
Great had the right to call his army together at any time,
and demand their service in any part of the Empire, and for
any length of time. By offering united resistance the vas-
sals succeeded in acquiring two important limitations to
this: they could be compelled to serve only forty days in
the year, and only within a reasonable distance from their

Feudal armies could not be levied directly by the king;

120 A SJiort History of Mediceval Europe


Feudal dues.

he must first send the summons to his great vassals, with
the order to appear with a certain number of men at a cer-
tain time and place. These, in turn, delivered the order
to their vassals, and so the command was passed along until
it had reached the end of the line of vassals. Under such
conditions it is easily apparent that a feudal army was of
little use, even when it was got together. Since wars must
be fought, the rulers ceased to rely on their feudal levies,
and engaged mercenary troops, which they kept as a stand-
ing army. Among the special duties laid upon a vassal
were the following : If in battle the lord were unhorsed the
vassal must give him his own; if the lord were in personal
danger, the vassal must defend him with his life ; if the lord
were taken prisoner of war, the vassal was bound to go as a
hostage for him.

There were various circumstances under which the lord
might demand money from his vassals. When he knighted
his eldest son, or gave his eldest daughter in marriage, or
himself was taken prisoner, he might demand any sum
which his vassal was able to pay. Such payments were
called " aids," and tended to become fixed. A relief was
a sum of money paid by an heir when he entered upon his
inheritance at the death of his father. Ordinarily this was
the entire income of the estate for a year. The same rule
existed in regard to ecclesiastical offices. The newly ap-
pointed bishop or priest Avas compelled to pay the first-
fruits (the annates), which meant the income of his office
for a year. If a vassal died without heirs, his property re-
verted to the lord (escheat), and might then be relet to
another vassal. If a vassal wished to surrender his fief to
another, he had first to get the consent of his lord and pay
a certain sum of money (fine upon alienation). If a vassal
were guilty of treason, the lord might claim his possession
by forfeiture. In England the king claimed, also, certain


Feudalism 121

other rights, such as wardship and marriage ; that is, if a
vassal died leaving only children who were minors, the king
became their guardian, and managed, and had the income
from, their estates until they became of age. His consent
to their marriage must be obtained, for which they were
expected to pay well. One of the most oppressive rights
of the lord was that of fodrum 3 that is, the maintenance
of himself and retinue, or even his army; when passing
through any district he might demand that its residents
supply himself and his followers with food. In the same
way, he might require the people along the way to furnish
him a sufficient number of horses and wagons to transport
him and his train from one place to another.

The rents due from the vassal were of various kinds.
Generally a certain sum was due for the land, another for
the house, sometimes another for the lire (chimney), and
ordinarily a small tax for each head of stock (cattle, sheep,
hogs, etc.). Of course the lord received a certain share of
all that was produced on the soil, of the wheat, hay, wine,
chickens, stock, honey, beeswax, and everything, in fact.
A charge was also made for the privilege of pasturing the
stock in the forests or fields of the lord, for obtaining fire-
wood from his forests, and for fishing in the streams which
were regarded as his property. The peasants were forbid-
den to sell their grain for a certain length of time after the
harvest, or their wine after the vintage, in order that the
lord might have a temporary monopoly in these articles.
They were compelled to bake their bread in his oven, grind
their corn at his mill, and press their grapes in his wine-
press, for all of which a suitable toll in kind was charged.
The lord could also seize the grain, wine, and other prod-
uce of his tenant, paying him what he chose, either in cash
or at the end of a certain time. The tenant was required
to labor also for his lord a certain number of days in the

122 A SJiort History of Atedmval Europe

Feudal jus-


Disposition of
the soil.

year. He must till his fields, care for his crops, make his
wine, furnish horses and wagons on demand, haul his wood
for the fires in the house, stones for building purposes, keep
his castle and other buildings in repair, build defences, re-
pair the roads and bridges, and render a multitude of other

The lord exercised over his tenants the power of a judge.
All cases were tried before him or his officers. He had the
right to impose and collect fines for all sorts of offences.
For every crime and misdemeanor there was a fixed fine.
The administration of justice on a great domain was, there-
fore, the source of a considerable income. The lord held
court three times a year, at which all his vassals were ex-
pected to be present ; but such attendance was soon felt to
be burdensome and they secured permission to absent them-
selves on the payment of a fee.

These are only some of the rights of a feudal lord. It
was to the lord's interest, of course, to multiply them and
enforce them whenever possible. The vassals did all they
could to limit them and to preserve their liberty and inde-
pendence. It is apparent, however, that they were subject
to innumerable burdens, and if their lord or his overseer
was so disposed, their lives could be made unendurable.

Feudal society may be divided into three classes, the
peasants or tillers of the soil, the citizens or inhabitants of
the towns, forming the industrial class, and the aristocracy,
who lived from the labors of the other two classes.

The land was ordinarily divided into large estates, or
domains, in the hands of what we may call great landlords,
who, of course, did no work themselves. Very often they
did not even oversee their estates but left that work to the
care of a foreman or agent. This office of agent often be-
came a fief, but sometimes it was farmed out for a certain
sum. The holder of it received no salary, but was ex-

Fctidalisni 123

pected to get his pay out of the administration of the office
itself. Tliis he did at the expense of the peasants. The
central house, or manor of the estate, was regarded as the
residence of the lord, although it often happened that he
spent little time at it, especially if he possessed several do-
mains. The manor was often the residence of the agent.
About the manor was often a considerable amount of land
which was held by the lord and cultivated for his benefit.
Since all his tenants owed him a certain number of days'
labor, he never had any difficulty in having this land well

All the rest of the tillable land and meadow was divided
into small lots and parcelled out among the tenants and
became hereditary in the family of the one who tilled them.
These tenants lived, generally, in little houses grouped to-
gether, forming a village. All the inhabitants of the coun-
try were known as peasants (rustici, villains), and may be
divided into two classes, serfs and free. But within these
two divisions there were many variations.

The slavery of the early Empire had been changed into
serfdom. The slaves had become attached to the soil which Serfs,
they tilled. They were no longer sold. They were allowed
to marry, and in accordance with the prevailing feudal
customs received a bit of land. At first the lord could tax
his serfs at will, but gradually limits were set to the demands
which he might make. The serf paid an annual poll-tax,
and if he married someone belonging to another domain
he also paid a certain sum for the privilege of doing so.
He could neither alienate nor dispose of his possessions by
will. At his death all that he had went to the lord. The
serf could neither be taken from his land, nor might he
leave it ; yet many of them ran away from their lords, and,
passing themselves off for freemen, took service with other
lords. If caught, however, they could be restored to their


124 -^ Short History of Mcdiceval Europe

former lord ; but if they could secure admission to the
ranks of the clergy they thereby became free men. They
might also become free in other ways. They might, if
their master were willing, formally renounce him, surrender
all their goods, and quit the domain. On the other hand,
the lord might set a serf free on the payment of a certain
sum. This became, indeed, a favorite way of raising
money. The lord would set free all the serfs of his domain
and demand the payment of the fee. Since they became
his free tenants and must remain and till his land, he really
lost nothing by setting them free, but rather gained. On
the other hand, people might be reduced to serfdom by
force. The conceptions of free and servile had become
attached to the soil. Certain parts of a domain were called
free, probably because they had always been occupied by
free peasants, while other parts were called servile, probably
because they had always been tilled by slaves who gradually
became serfs. If a free peasant occupied this servile land
he thereby lost his free character and became a serf. The
free peasants were more nearly like renters who pay so
much each year for the use of their lands either in money
or in produce. Their lands were also hereditary. Being
independent of their lord they could dispose of their pos-
sessions. There was nothing to prevent them from amass-
ing a considerable amount of property.

In a later chapter will be found a description of the class
Citizens. of citizens. The cities themselves arose after the establish-

ment of feudalism, but were forced into the feudal relations.
They were, in fact, regarded as feudal personalities, and
were treated much as a feudal individual. The city, as a
whole, owed feudal duties. As the cities grew large and
rich they resisted the feudal claims of their lords and were
one of the powers that destroyed feudalism.

Sharply separated from the laboring classes were the

Feudalism 125

nobility. This nobility was divided into two classes, the Nobility,
secular and the ecclesiastical. The only occupation of the
secular nobility was the use of arms. Only he could enter
this class who had sufficient money to equip himself as a
warrior and to support himself without work ; for work was
regarded as ignoble. It is probable that for centuries the
acquisition of sufficient wealth enabled anyone to pass into
the ranks of the nobility. But in the thirteenth century
nobility became hereditary. The line was sharply drawn
between the noble and the ignoble families. Noble birth
was added to the requisites of nobility, and eventually be-
came the only requisite. Wealth alone was no longer the
passport to noble rank. Intermarriage between nobles and
commoners was forbidden, or at least regarded as a mesal-
liance. In Germany and France all the children born into
a noble family inherited the title, while in England the
title and wealth passed only to the eldest son. He only
was required to marry within his class. The younger
children might marry into ignoble families without thereby
forming a mesalliance, a fact which accounts for the com-
munity of interest which has ever existed in England but
not elsewhere between commoner and aristocracy.

From the tenth century it became customary to fight on
horseback. Whoever was able to equip himself with a horse Cavalry.
and the necessary armor was regarded as a member of the
aristocracy of arms. Only the common people still fought
on foot. From this use of the horse came the terms " chiv-
alry" and "chevalier." Both man and horse were pro-
tected by armor in such a way that they were almost in-
vulnerable. The knight wore a helmet, coat of mail, and
a shield for defence, and for attack carried a sword and
lance. Improvements were constantly made in the armor,
which gradually became so heavy that the knight was al-
most helpless except on his horse. For ordinary purposes

126 A Short History of Mediceval Europe

he kept a light horse, but for battle, a strong animal was
required because of the weight of the armor. Every knight
was also attended by an esquire, whose duty it was to care
for his horse and weapons and to serve as a body-servant.
Among this great body of men of arms there grew up a

Chivalry. set of customs and ideas to which the name of chivalry was

given. It came to be regarded as a closed society into
which, after certain conditions had been fulfilled, one could
be admitted by initiatory ceremonies. Every young noble-
man was required to learn the use of arms by serving an
apprenticeship of from five to seven years. Generally he
was attached to some knight, whom he attended every-
where, serving him in all sorts of ways. Such service, how-
ever, was not regarded as ignoble. At the close of his
apprenticeship the young man bathed and put on his armor.
His master then girded him with a sword and struck him
with his hand on the shoulder, at the same time addressing
him as knight. This is the earlier form of the ceremony.
From the twelfth century on, the clergy added thereto
many rites, all of a religious character. The candidate
must also fast, spend a night in prayer, attend mass on the
following morning, and lay his sword on the altar that it
might be blessed by the priest, who then addressed him on

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Online LibraryOliver J. (Oliver Joseph) ThatcherA short history of mediæval Europe → online text (page 10 of 25)