Feudalism In Europe, Its Frankish Birth And English Development

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Feudalism,  A general Overview

Author:     Stubbs, William

 Feudalism: Its Frankish Birth And English Development

 

Part Eleven

 

     It now became manifest that the probabilities of war inclined to the

party who could take the field with selected and experienced soldiers. The

command of money was the command of armed hirelings, more sure and steady in

battle, as we must confess with shame, than the patriot citizen. Though the

nobility still composed in a great degree the strength of an army, yet they

served in a new character; their animating spirit was that of chivalry rather

than of feudal tenure; their connection with a superior was personal rather

than territorial.  The crusades had probably a material tendency to effectuate

this revolution by substituting, what was inevitable in those expeditions, a

voluntary stipendiary service for one of absolute obligation. ^x It is the

opinion of Daniel that in the thirteenth century all feudal tenants received

pay, even during their prescribed term of service. ^y This does not appear

consonant to the law of fiefs; yet their poverty may often have rendered it

impossible to defray the cost of equipment on distant expeditions.  A large

proportion of the expense must in all cases have fallen upon the lord; and

hence that perpetually increasing taxation, the effects whereof we have lately

been investigating.

 

[Footnote x: Joinville, in several passages, intimates that most of the

knights serving in St. Louis' crusade received pay, either for their superior

lord, if he were on the expedition, or from some other, into whose service

they entered for the time.  He set out himself with ten knights, whom he

afterwards found it difficult enough to maintain. - Collection des Memoires,

t. i. p. 49, and t. ii. p. 53.]

 

[Footnote y: Hist. de la Milice Francaise, p. 84.  The use of mercenary troops

prevailed much in Germany during the thirteenth century.  Schmidt, t. iv. p.

89.  In Italy it was also very common; though its general adoption is to be

referred to the commencement of the succeeding age.]

 

     A feudal army, however, composed of all tenants in chief and their

vassals, still presented a formidable array.  It is very long before the

paradox is generally admitted that numbers do not necessarily contribute to

the intrinsic efficiency of armies.  Philip IV. assembled a great force by

publishing the arriere-ban, or feudal summons, for his unhappy expedition

against the Flemings.  A small and more disciplined body of troops would not,

probably, have met with the discomfiture of Courtray. Edward I. and Edward II.

frequently called upon those who owed military service, in their invasions of

Scotland. ^z But in the French wars of Edward III. the whole, I think, of his

army served for pay, and was raised by contract with men of rank and

influence, who received wages for every soldier according to his station and

the arms he bore.  The rate of pay was so remarkably high, that, unless we

imagine a vast profit to have been intended for the contractors, the private

lancers and even archers must have been chiefly taken from the middling

classes, the smaller gentry, or rich yeomanry of England. ^a This part of

Edward's military system was probably a leading cause of his superiority over

the French, among whom the feudal tenantry were called into the field, and

swelled their unwieldy armies at Crecy and Poitiers.  Both parties, however,

in this war employed mercenary troops.  Philip had 15,000 Italian crossbow-men

at Crecy.  It had for some time before become the trade of soldiers of fortune

to enlist under leaders of the same description as themselves in companies of

adventure, passing from one service to another, unconcerned as to the cause in

which they were retained.  These military adventurers played a more remarkable

part in Italy than in France, though not a little troublesome to the latter

country.  The feudal tenures had at least furnished a loyal native militia,

whose duties, though much limited in the extent, were defined by usage and

enforced by principle.  They gave place, in an evil hour for the people and

eventually for sovereigns, to contracts with mutinous hirelings, generally

strangers, whose valor in the day of battle inadequately redeemed their bad

faith and vexatious rapacity. France, in her calamitous period under Charles

VI. and Charles VII., experienced the full effects of military licentiousness.

At the expulsion of the English, robbery and disorder were substituted for the

more specious plundering of war.  Perhaps few measures have ever been more

popular, as few certain have been more politic, than the establishment of

regular companies of troops by an ordinance of Charles VII. in 1444. ^b These

may justly pass for the earliest institution of a standing army in Europe,

though some Italian princes had retained troops constantly in their pay, but

prospectively to hostilities, which were seldom long intermitted.  Fifteen

companies were composed each of a hundred men at arms, or lancers; and, in the

language of that age, the whole body was one thousand five hundred lances.

But each lancer had three archers, a coutiller, or soldier armed with a knife,

and a page or valet attached to him, all serving on horseback - so that the

fifteen companies amounted to nine thousand cavalry. ^c From these small

beginnings, as they must appear in modern times, arose the regular army of

France, which every succeeding king was solicitous to augment.  The ban was

sometimes convoked, that is, the possessors of fiefs were called upon for

military service in subsequent ages; but with more of ostentation than real

efficiency.

 

[Footnote z: Rymer, t. iii. p. 173, 189, 199, et alibi saepius.]

 

[Footnote a: Many proofs of this may be adduced from Rymer's Collection. The

following is from Brady's History of England, vol. ii.  Appendix, p. 86.  The

wages allowed by contract in 1346 were, for an earl, 6s. 8d. per day; for

barons and bannerets, 4s. for knights, 2s.; for squires, 1s.; for archers and

hobelers (light cavalry), 6d.; for archers on foot, 3d.; for Welshmen, 2d.

These sums multiplied by about 24, to bring them on a level with the present

value of money [1818], will show the pay to have been extremely high.  The

cavalry of course, furnished themselves with horses and equipments, as well as

arms, which were very expensive.  See too Book I., p. 62, of this volume.]

 

[Footnote b: The estates at Orleans in 1439 had advised this measure, as is

recited in the preamble of the ordinance.  Ordonnances des Rois, t. xii. p.

312.  Sismondi observes (vol. xiii. p. 352) that very little is to be found in

historians about the establishment of these compagnies d'ordonnance, though

the most important event in the reign of Charles VII. The old soldiers of

fortune who pillaged the country either entered into these companies or were

disbanded, and after their dispersion were readily made amenable to the law.

This writer is exceedingly full on the subject.]

 

[Footnote c: Daniel, Hist. de la Milice Francaise, p. 266; Villaret, Hist. de

France, t. xv. p. 394.]

 

    The feudal compact, thus deprived of its original efficacy, soon lost the

respect and attachment which had attended it.  Homage and investiture became

unmeaning ceremonies; the incidents of relief and aid were felt as burdensome

exactions.  And indeed the rapacity with which these were levied, especially

by the Norman sovereigns and their barons, was of itself sufficient to

extinguish all the generous feelings of vassalage. Thus galled, as it were, by

the armor which he was compelled to wear, but not to use, the military tenant

of England looked no longer with contempt upon the owner of lands in socage,

who held his estate with almost the immunities of an allodial proprietor.  But

the profits which the crown reaped from wardships, and perhaps the prejudices

of lawyers, prevented the abolition of military tenures till the restoration

of Charles II.  In France the fiefs of noblemen were very unjustly exempted

from all territorial taxation, though the tailles of later times had, strictly

speaking, only superseded the aids to which they had been always liable. The

distinction, it is well known, was not annihilated till that event which

annihilated all distinctions, the French revolution.

 

     It is remarkable that, although the feudal system established in England

upon the Conquest broke in very much upon our ancient Saxon liberties - though

it was attended with harsher servitudes than in any other country,

particularly those two intolerable burdens, wardship and marriage - yet it has

in general been treated with more favor by English than French writers.  The

hardiness with which the ancient barons resisted their sovereign, and the

noble struggles which they made for civil liberty, especially in that Great

Charter, the basement at least, if not the foundation, of our free

constitution, have met with a kindred sympathy in the bosoms of Englishmen;

while, from an opposite feeling, the French have been shocked at that

aristocratic independence which cramped the prerogatives and obscured the

lustre of their crown.  Yet it is precisely to this feudal policy that France

is indebted for that which is ever dearest to her children, their national

splendor and power.  That kingdom would have been irretrievably dismembered in

the tenth century, if the laws of feudal dependence had not preserved its

integrity.  Empires of unwieldy bulk, like that of Charlemagne, have several

times been dissolved by the usurpation of provincial governors, as is recorded

both in ancient history and in that of the Mahometan dynasties in the East.

What question can there be that the powerful dukes of Guienne or counts of

Toulouse would have thrown off all connection with the crown of France, when

usurped by one of their equals, if the slight dependence of vassalage had not

been substituted for legitimate subjection to a sovereign?

 

     It is the previous state of society, under the grandchildren of

Charlemagne, which we must always keep in mind, if we would appreciate the

effects of the feudal system upon the welfare of mankind.  The institutions of

the eleventh century must be compared with those of the ninth, not with the

advanced civilization of modern times.  If the view that I have taken of those

dark ages is correct, the state of anarchy which we usually term feudal was

the natural result of a vast and barbarous empire feebly administered, and the

cause rather than effect of the general establishment of feudal tenures.

These, by preserving the mutual relations of the whole, kept alive the feeling

of a common country and common duties, and settled, after the lapse of ages,

into the free constitution of England, the firm monarchy of France, and the

federal union of Germany.

 

     The utility of any form of polity may be estimated by its effect upon

national greatness and security, upon civil liberty and private rights, upon

the tranquillity and order of society, upon the increase and diffusion of

wealth, or upon the general tone of moral sentiment and energy.  The feudal

constitution was certainly, as has been observed already, little adapted for

the defence of a mighty kingdom, far less for schemes of conquest.  But as it

prevailed alike in several adjacent countries, none had anything to fear from

the military superiority of its neighbors.  It was this inefficiency of the

feudal militia, perhaps, that saved Europe during the middle ages from the

danger of universal monarchy. In times when princes had little notion of

confederacies for mutual protection, it is hard to say what might not have

been the successes of an Otho the Great, a Frederic Barbarossa, or a Philip

Augustus, if they could have wielded the whole force of their subjects

whenever their ambition required.  If an empire equally extensive with that of

Charlemagne, and supported by military despotism, had been formed about the

twelfth or thirteenth centuries, the seeds of commerce and liberty, just then

beginning to shoot, would have perished, and Europe, reduced to a barbarous

servitude, might have fallen before the free barbarians of Tartary.

 

     If we look at the feudal polity as a scheme of civil freedom, it bears a

noble countenance.  To the feudal law it is owing that the very names of right

and privilege were not swept away, as in Asia, by the desolating hand of

power.  The tyranny which, on every favorable moment, was breaking through all

barriers, would have rioted without control, if, when the people were poor and

disunited, the nobility had not been brave and free.  So far as the sphere of

feudality extended, it diffused the spirit of liberty and the notions of

private right.  Everyone I think will acknowledge this who considers the

limitations of the services of vassalage, so cautiously marked in those

law-books which are the records of customs, the reciprocity of obligation

between the lord and his tenant, the consent required in every measure of a

legislative or a general nature, the security, above all, which every vassal

found in the administration of justice by his peers, and even (we may in this

sense say) in the trial by combat.  The bulk of the people, it is true, were

degraded by servitude; but this had no connection with the feudal tenures.

 

     The peace and good order of society were not promoted by this system.

Though private wars did not originate in the feudal customs, it is impossible

to doubt that they were perpetuated by so convenient an institution, which

indeed owed its universal establishment to no other cause.  And as predominant

habits of warfare are totally irreconcilable with those of industry, not

merely by the immediate works of destruction which render its efforts

unavailing, but through that contempt of peaceful occupations which they

produce, the feudal system must have been intrinsically adverse to the

accumulation of wealth and the improvement of those arts which mitigate the

evils or abridge the labors of mankind.

 

     But as a school of moral discipline the feudal institutions were perhaps

most to be valued.  Society had sunk, for several centuries after the

dissolution of the Roman empire, into a condition of utter depravity, where,

if any vices could be selected as more eminently characteristic than others,

they were falsehood, treachery, and ingratitude.  In slowly purging off the

lees of this extreme corruption, the feudal spirit exerted its ameliorating

influence.  Violation of faith stood first in the catalogue of crimes, most

repugnant to the very essence of a feudal tenure, most severely and promptly

avenged, most branded by general infamy.  The feudal law-books breathe

throughout a spirit of honorable obligation.  The feudal course of

jurisdiction promoted, what trial by peers is peculiarly calculated to

promote, a keener feeling and readier perception of moral as well as of legal

distinctions.  And as the judgment and sympathy of mankind are seldom

mistaken, in these great points of veracity and justice, except through the

temporary success of crimes, or the want of a definite standard of right, they

gradually recovered themselves when law precluded the one and supplied the

other.  In the reciprocal services of lord and vassal there was ample scope

for every magnanimous and disinterested energy.  The heart of man, when placed

in circumstances which have a tendency to excite them, will seldom be

deficient in such sentiments.  No occasions could be more favorable than the

protection of a faithful supporter, or the defence of a beneficent suzerain,

against such powerful aggression as left little prospect except of sharing in

his ruin.

 

     From these feelings engendered by the feudal relation has sprung up the

peculiar sentiment of personal reverence and attachment towards a sovereign

which we denominate loyalty; alike distinguishable from the stupid devotion of

Eastern slaves, and from the abstract respect with which free citizens regard

their chief magistrate.  Men who had been used to swear fealty, to profess

subjection, to follow, at home and in the field, a feudal superior and his

family, easily transferred the same allegiance to the monarch.  It was a very

powerful feeling which could make the bravest men put up with slights and

ill-treatment at the hands of their sovereign; or call forth all the energies

of disinterested exertion for one whom they never saw, and in whose character

there was nothing to esteem.  In ages when the rights of the community were

unfelt this sentiment was one great preservative of society; and, though

collateral or even subservient to more enlarged principles, it is still

indispensable to the tranquillity and permanence of every monarchy.  In a

moral view loyalty has scarcely perhaps less tendency to refine and elevate

the heart than patriotism itself; and holds a middle place in the scale of

human motives, as they ascend from the grosser inducements of self-interest to

the furtherance of general happiness and conformity to the purposes of

Infinite Wisdom.

 

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