Oliver J. (Oliver Joseph) Thatcher.

A source book for mediæval history; selected documents illustrating the history of Europe in the Middle Age online

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treasure of the church and may, at the discretion of the church, be
applied to the benefit of others who are lacking in such good works.]
One of the ways in which the church distributes this common pos-
session (treasure of merits) is by means of indulgences." From the
Theologla Dommatica of Prof. Dati, vol. iii, Chap. XXIX, Florence,

Anno 1512. Tetzel gained by his preaching in Germany an
immense sum of money which he sent to Rome. A very large
sum was collected at the new mining works at St. Annaberg,
where I heard him for two years. It is incredible what this
ignorant and impudent monk used to say. . . . He de-
clared that if they contributed readily and bought grace and
indulgence, all the hills of St. Annaberg would become pure
massive silver. Also, that, as soon as the coin clinked in the
chest, the soul for whom the money was paid would go
straight to heaven. . . . The indulgence was so highly
prized that when the agent came to a city the bull was car-
ried on a satin or gold cloth, and all the priests and monks,
the town council, schoolmaster, scholars, men, women, girls,
and children went out in procession to meet it with banners,
candles, and songs. All the bells were rung and organs
played. He was conducted into the church, a red cross was
erected in the centre of the church, and the pope's banner
displayed. . . .

Anno 1517. It is incredible what this ignorant monk said
and preached. He gave sealed letters stating that even the
sins which a man was intending to commit would be forgiven.


He said the pope had more power than all the apostles, all
the angels and saints, even than the Virgin Mary herself.
For these were all subject to Christ, but the pope was equal
to Christ. After his ascension into heaven Christ had noth-
ing more to do with the management of the church until the
judgment day, but had committed all that to the pope as his
ticar and vicegerent.


Feudalism, as the prevailing order of society, socially, economi-
cally, and politically, makes its appearance toward the end of the
tenth century. During the disorders consequent upon the disintegra-
tion of the empire of the Carolingians (see nos. 15-25) the govern-
ment failed to supply protection and security, and ceased to act as
a bond to hold men together. As a result, certain local, private
elements of society, which were very generally diffused throughout
that empire, were raised to the rank of public political institutions.
It is our purpose to illustrate the origins and growth of feudalism,
and the characteristic features of the feudal state. The elements
which lay at the basis of the feudal system may be classified under
three heads : ( 1 ) The personal dependence of one man upon another ;
(2) dependent tenure of land, in which the holder and user of the
land was not the owner, but held it of or from another; (3) the pos-
session by private persons or corporations of extensive sovereign
rights over their lands and tenants. These elements were present
in various degrees and forms in the German tribes before the migra-
tions and in the later Roman empire, but it will be sufficient for our
purpose to show the existence and the character of these elements in
the tribal kingdoms and the Frankish kingdom under the Merovin-
gians, for in these states the German and Roman people and institu-
tions were united to form the society of the Middle Age. Then we
shall attempt to illustrate the growth and development of these
elements in the late Merovingian and in the Carolingian periods, and
finally the characteristic features of society in the feudal age. The
difficulty in illustrating the situation from public documents will
be readily understood ; it is due to the fact that these institutions
were only partly legal or public, and to the fact that the makers of
the laws took for granted a knowledge of the institutions and did
not think it necessary to describe or explain them. It is hoped,
Vowever, that the notes to the passages translated will make clear
their meaning and importance.



180-197. ORIGINS.


In the documents of the tribal kingdoms and Merovingian kingdom
(co. 500-700) there are many evidences of the importance for
society of the dependence of one man upon another, and of the fact
that this relation was superseding in importance the relation of the
private man to the state. On the one hand, men became dependents
and retainers of the king and the great officials and lords for mutual
advantages, the superior gaining the prestige that came with the
possession of a large following, and the dependents gaining employ-
ment under and connection with the great persons of the state. On
the other hand, poor land-owners, or persons without lands of their
own, commended themselves to landlords for the purpose of receiving
protection and support. In both cases the personal dependence was
connected with the holding of land, for the king or great lord fre-
quently gave land to his followers, while the poor man who com-
mended himself to another usually did it for the purpose of acquiring
land to cultivate; this side of the relation, however, will be seen
more clearly under the next section.


Marculf's Formulae, I, no. 18; M. G. LL. 4to, V, p. 55.

Most of the following documents are taken from books of formulae :
that is, collections of forms of documents made by various persons
to serve as examples for the drawing up of charters, etc. They were
probably made from actual documents by leaving out the names and
inserting ille (such an one) or similar expressions. The formulae
of Marculf were written at the end of the seventh century. We quote
them from the edition in the Monumenta Oermanice, Leges, vol. v,
giving only the pages in that volume after the first reference.

It is right that those who have promised us unbroken faith
should be rewarded by our aid and protection. Now since
our faithful subject (name) with the will of God has come to
our palace with his arms and has there sworn in our hands
to keep his trust and fidelity to us, therefore we decree and
command by the present writing that henceforth the said
(name) is to be numbered among our antrustiones.* If any-

No. 182] FEUDALISM 343

one shall presume to slay him, let him know that he shall
have to pay 600 solidi as a wergeld for him.

i The position of the antrustio is explained in the note to the
Salic law, XLI, no. 4. See also the reference to the leudes in
no. 189.


Marculf, I, no. 23; p. 57.

One great advantage that the dependent possessed was the support
and influence of his lord in judicial trials and other matters of the

Know that we have ordered the apostolic man (name) [a
bishop] or the illustrious man (name) [a secular official or
lord] to go to a certain place, and we now command that as
long as he is away all his lawsuits, and those of his clients
and dependents and people that live within his jurisdiction,
are to be suspended. Therefore we decree and order by the
present writing" that until he returns all his cases and those
of his clients, both those who go with him and those who
stay on his lands, and of his people who live within his
jurisdiction, shall be suspended, and afterwards he shall do
justice to everyone and receive justice from everyone.


Formulse Turonenses, no. 43; p. 158.

Notice the reason given by the person who commends himself, the
effects of commendation on both parties, and the binding nature of
the agreement. The reason alleged (extreme poverty) is probably
a mere form of speech, and was not present in each actual instance
of commendation.

To my great lord, (name), I, (name). Since, as was well
known, I had not wherewith to feed and clothe myself, I
came to you and told you my wish, to commend myself to
you and to put myself under your protection. I have now


done so, on the condition that you shall supply me with food
and clothing as far as I shall merit by my services, and that
as long as I live I shall perform such services for you as are
becoming to a freeman, and shall never have the right to
withdraw from your power and protection, but shall remain
under them all the days of my life. It is agreed that if either
of us shall try to break this compact he shall pay solidi,
and the compact shall still hold. It is also agreed that two
copies of this letter shall be made and signed by us, which
also has been done.


Marculf, I, no. 21; pp. 56 f.

Our faithful subject, (name), with the will of God has
come to us and told us that he is not able on account of his
weakness to defend or to prosecute his cases before the court.
Therefore he has besought us to allow the illustrious man
(name) to take up his cases for him, both in the local court
and in the royal court, whether he prosecutes or is prosecuted,
and he has commended his affairs to him in our presence by
the staff. Therefore we command, in accordance with the
desire of both parties, that the aforesaid man (name) may
undertake the cases of the other (name), and that he shall
do justice for him and for all his possessions, and get justice
for him from others ; this shall be so, as long as both desire it.


Absolute ownership of land was giving place to possession of land
owned by others than the holder. The greater landlords (the king,
the church, and the great officials and lords) sought to acquire
cultivators for their lands, while the poorer land-owners and the
persons without lands of their own sought a means of livelihood or
protection. The usual form was the benefice or the precarium.
The benefice was the name applied generally in this time to land
the use of which was granted by the owner to others for a term of

No. 184] FEUDALISM 345

years, for life, or in perpetuity. The precarium was a form of the
benefice, the name being technically applied to lands thus granted in
response to a letter of request or prayer (litterce precarice). It will
be seen from the documents that the lands were usually those that
had been given originally by the poor land-holder to the greater
landlord and then received back as benefice or precarium. The reason
was undoubtedly in many cases the desire of the owner to come
under the protection of the greater landlord. The king also gave
land to his followers and officials, either to bind them to him or to
reward them for services; it is probable, although not certain, that
these lands, in part at least, were held only for life or a term of
years, on condition of services or faithfulness, and so were in a
sense benefices.


Marculf, II, no. 3; pp. 74 ff.

. . . I, (name), and my wife, (name), in the name of
the Lord, give by this letter of gift, and transfer from our
ownership to the ownership and authority of the monastery
of (name), over which the venerable abbot (name) presides,
and which was founded in the honor of (name) by (name)
in the county of (name), the following villas * (name), situ-
ated in the county of (name), with all the lands, houses,
buildings, tenants, slaves, vineyards, woods, fields, pastures,
meadows, streams, and all other belongings and dependencies,
and all things movable and immovable which are found in
the said villas now or may be added later ; in order that under
the protection of Christ they may be used for the support and
maintenance of the monks who dwell in the aforesaid monas-
tery. We do this on the condition that as long as either of ua
shall live we may possess the aforesaid villas, without
prejudice to the ownership of the monastery and without
diminution of the value of them, except that we shall be
allowed to emancipate any of the slaves that dwell on the
lands for the salvation of our souls. After the death of both
of us, the aforesaid villas with any additions or improve-


merits which may have been made, shall return immediately
to the possession of the said monastery and the said abbot and
his successors, without undertaking any judicial process or
obtaining the consent of the heirs.

i The term villa, as used in these documents, means a domain or
estate with a group or village of dependent cultivators.


Marculf, II, no. 5; pp. 77 f.

To our lord and father in Christ, the holy and apostolic
bishop (name), I (name), and my wife (name). It is well
known that we have given in the name of the Lord our villa
of (name), situated in the county of (name), in its entirety
and with all that we possessed there, by a letter of gift to the
church of (name), founded in the honor of (name), and that
you have received it on behalf of the said church. And in
response to our petition you have granted that as long as we
or either of us shall live we shall hold the said villa as a
benefice with the right of usufruct, 1 with the understanding
that we shall not diminish its value in any way or alienate
anything that belongs to it, but shall hold it without preju-
dice to the ownership of the said church or bishop. There-
fore we have written this precarial letter in witness that our
possession shall not work any prejudice to your ownership or
any injury to the said villa ; but that we only have the use of
it during our lives, and that after we are dead you shall
immediately recover it with all the additions and improve-
ments which we may have made, by virtue of this precarial
letter, which shall be renewed every five years, and without
requiring any judicial process or obtaining the consent of
the heirs; and that thereafter you shall hold it forever, or
do with it whatever may seem to you to be to the best interests
of the said church.

1 To hold land with the right of usufruct or to have the usufruct
of land, means to hold, use, and enjoy the products of land the own-

No 187] FEUDALISM 347

ership of which belongs to another. Thus a benefice is a form of
usufruct. It corresponds practically to modern long lease, which is
sometimes expressed in our legal usage as lease for 99 years, etc.


Marculf, II, no. 39; pp. 98 f.

To our lord and father in Christ, the holy and apostolic
bishop (name), I (name), and my wife (name). Since you
have permitted us, as long as we or either of us shall live, to
hold the land (name) belonging to your church (name),
which (name) gave to the said church for the salvation of his
soul, therefore for this permission and for the salvation of
our souls we have given this other place (name), to belong
to the said church and to you and your successors after we
are both dead. This Ave have done on the condition that as
long as we live we may possess the said places, both that
which you have permitted us to use and the one which we
have given you for the salvation of our souls, with the right
of usufruct, without diminishing its value or prejudicing the
rights of your church; and that after we are dead the said
places shall immediately revert to your ownership by virtue
of this precarial letter, without requiring any renewal of the
letter, and in spite of any opposition from our heirs or from
anyone else.


Formulae Bituricenses, no. 2; p. 169.

To the lords (names), we (name), and (name). It is
well known that our father lived on your lands and made a
precarial letter to you for them, which we now renew and
sign, humbly beseeching you to allow us to remain on the
same lands. 1 In order that our possession of the lands may
not prejudice the rights of you and your successors in them,
we have deposited with you this precarial letter, agreeing
that if we ever forget its terms, or ever refuse to obey you or


your agents in anything which you command, or ever assert
that this is not your land, we may be punished according to
the severity of the law as wicked violators of your rights, and
may be driven from the lands without judicial sentence.

i This and the following document are instances of a very common
practice ; the heirs of the holder of a precarium took it over on the
same terms. The result was that the relation tended to become
permanent, and a regular class of dependent land-holders grew up.
Notice also the subjection of the holders of the precarium to the
grantors, in this case secular lords.


Formulae Augienses, B, no. 8 ; pp. 352 f .

The first part of the form, including the original gift of the land,
is omitted in the original, but may be supplied from a preceding

I do this on the condition that as long as I live I may hold
the said lands for the said rent, and that my children and
their posterity may do the same forever.


M. G. LL. 4to, II, 1, no. 6; Gregory of Tours, IX, ch. 20.

This is a treaty between two of the Merovingian kings, Gunthram
of Burgundy and Childebert II of Austrasia. It forms an incident in
the civil war begun between Sigebert and Chilperic ; see no. 5, Gregory
of Tours, IV, ch. 28, and note.

It illustrates the practice of the kings of giving land to their fol-
lowers and officials. This was very important in the creation of a
landed aristocracy. See the remarks above in regard to the nature
of these gifts (introductory note to nos. 184-188).

In accordance with the treaties made between Gunthram
and Sigebert of blessed memory, it is likewise agreed that
those leudes* who after the death of Chlothar I first gave
their oaths to Gunthram and then later removed to other
parts, are to be made to return from the places where they

No. 190] FEUDALISM 349

are now dwelling. It is also agreed that those who, after the
death of Chlothar I, gave their oaths to Sigebert and then
removed to other parts are in a similar manner to be made
to return. Likewise whatever the aforesaid kings bestowed
or with the consent of God wished to bestow upon churches
or upon their faithful subjects, shall remain in the possession
of the churches or subjects. And whatever shall be restored
in this way to the subject of either king, legally and justly,
shall be held by that person as his own. . . . And let
each one possess in security whatever he has received through
the munificence -of preceding kings, to the time of the death
of Chlothar I of blessed memory, and if anything has been
taken from the faithful subjects since that time, it shall be
restored to them from this moment. . . . Likewise it is
agreed that neither of the kings shall entice away the leudes
of the other or receive them ; but if some of the leudes believe
they are justified in leaving their king by reason of injuries
done to them, they are to be compensated for their injuries,
and made to return. . . .

i The leudes are evidently the personal dependents of the king, that
is, antrustiones. They were probably given land by the king. Notice
the other references in the treaty to persons holding land from the
"munificence" of the king. The same thing is referred to in nos.
190, 193, 194.


In the feudal age practically every landlord exercised over his
lands and tenants rights and authority which are now regarded as
sovereign rights belonging to the state. This was due in the main
to the practice of the Merovingian and Carolingian kings of granting
immunity to the churches and the great landlords, a practice which
naturally grew with the increasing weakness of the monarchy and
the growth of the power of the nobles. A grant of immunity operated
to exclude the public officials from lands, which were then in theory
under the immediate control of the king. In the late Merovingian
period the weakness of the kings and the disorganization of the pub-
lic administration left the control of immunity domains really in


the hands of the landlords. The holder of land covered by a grant
of immunity thus came to represent the state to the people on his
lands. He established courts for the trial of cases arising among
his tenants or represented them before the public courts; he was also
frequently given the right to collect the taxes, revenues, tolls, etc.,
from the lands of people, which would otherwise go to the royal
treasury. Most of the grants of immunity which have come down
to us are in favor of church lands, but they were also granted to
secular lords. The churches preserved their documents better than
secular persons did.


M. G. LL. 4to, II, 1, no. 8.

Notice the references to immunity, to grants of land to "churches
and powerful persons" ( lords and officials ) , and the implied right
of such landlords to appoint judges for trial of cases among their
tenants (private jurisdiction).

11. We grant to the churches the taxes from the fields
and pastures and the tithes of swine, so that no collector or
titheman shall enter the lands of a church . to gather such
dues for the royal treasury. Public officials shall not demand
any services from the churches of clergymen who have
acquired immunity from our father or grandfather.

12. Whatever has been given to churches or to clergymen
or to any person through the munificence of our aforesaid
predecessors of blessed memory is to belong to them in all

14. The property of churches, priests, and of the poor
who cannot protect themselves, shall be under the protection
of public officials until their cases can be brought to the king
and justice be done; only in so far, however, as it shall not
infringe on the rights of immunity which have been granted
by former kings to any church or powerful person or to any-
one else, for the keeping of peace and the preservation of

19, Bishops and powerful persons who have possessions

No. 191] FEUDALISM 351

in various regions shall not appoint travelling judges or any
judges except such as belong to the county in which they


M. G. DD. folio, I, pp. 30 f; Altmann und Bernheim, no. 112.

Childeric, king of the Franks, illustrious man. . . .
We have commanded it to be made known to all that the
venerable and pious abbot Berchar came to us and asked us
to grant him a certain place in the forest of Vervo in Gas-
cony, in which he might build a monastery, and to give him
material and resources by which he might construct a mon-
astery there and establish a congregation of monks. Now the
request of this great man pleased us and we granted him
what he asked. Then having built his monastery .
in the honor of Sts. Peter and Paul and the other saints, he
besought us, in order to make secure the whole undertaking,
to bestow complete immunity upon the monastery. There-
fore, we, moved to this by the kindness which Heaven has
shown to us, have hearkened to the prayer of this man
. . . and with the consent of our bishops and nobles do
now concede entire immunity over the whole possessions of
this monastery . . . for the peace of our kingdom and
for the reverence which we have for this religious place. We
command that no public official of any authority shall pre-
sume to enter the lands of this monastery . . . for the
purpose of hearing cases, of seizing securities, of collecting
taxes, of demanding entertainment, or of extorting tolls from
cities or markets ; nor shall he presume to exact any taxes or
payments whatever, but the monks shall rule and possess,
both in our time and in the future, all the property of this
monastery in all places and lands, where they have pos-
sessions, as aforesaid, without being subject to the entrance
of officials or to exactions on the part of the royal
treasury. . . .


Marculf, I, no. 3; pp. 43 f.

.We believe that our reign will best be rendered memorable,
if we bestow suitable benefits on churches (or whatever you
wish to insert here), with pious purpose, and if we secure
these benefits under the protection of God by putting them in
writing. Therefore, be it known to you that we have granted
the request of that apostolic man, the bishop of (name), for
the salvation of our souls ; namely, that no public official may

Online LibraryOliver J. (Oliver Joseph) ThatcherA source book for mediæval history; selected documents illustrating the history of Europe in the Middle Age → online text (page 30 of 53)