IN the six centuries that followed the death of Justinian, a remarkable collaboration of circumstances slowly effected a basic transformation of economic life in the West European world.
Certain conditions already noted came together to prepare for feudalism. As the cities of Italy and Gaul became unsafe during the German invasions, aristocrats moved out to their rural villas, and surrounded themselves with agricultural dependents, “client” families, and military aides. Monasteries whose monks tilled the soil and practiced handicrafts accentuated the centrifugal movement toward half-isolated economic units in the countryside. Roads injured by war, neglected by poverty, and endangered by highwaymen, could no longer maintain adequate communication and exchange. State revenues declined as commerce contracted and industry fell; impoverished governments could no longer provide protection for life, property, and trade. The obstruction of commerce compelled the villas to seek economic self-sufficiency; many manufactured articles formerly bought from the cities were—from the third century onward—produced on the great estates. In the fifth century the letters of Sidonius Apollinaris show us rural lords living in luxury on spacious holdings tilled by a semiservile tenantry; they are already a feudal aristocracy, possessing their own judiciary1 and soldiery,2 and differing from the later barons chiefly in knowing how to read.
The same factors that paved the way for feudalism between the third century and the sixth established it between the sixth and the ninth. Merovingian and Carolingian kings paid their generals and administrators with grants of land; in the ninth century these fiefs became hereditary and semi-independent through the weakness of the Carolingian kings. The Saracen, Norse, and Magyar invasions of the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries repeated and cemented the results of the German invasions six centuries before: central protection failed, the local baron or bishop organized a localized order and defense, and remained possessed of his own force and court. Since the invaders were often mounted, defenders who could afford a horse were in demand; cavalry became more important than infantry; and just as in early Rome a class of equites—men on horseback—had taken form between patrician and plebs, so in France, Norman England, and Christian Spain a class of mounted knights grew up between the duke or baron and the peasantry. The people did not resent these developments; in an atmosphere of terror, when attack might come at any time, they craved military organization; they built their homes as near to the baronial castle or fortified monastery as they could; and they readily gave allegiance and service to a lord—i.e., a law-ward—or to a duke—i.e., one who could lead; we must imagine their terror to understand their subjection. Freemen who could no longer protect themselves offered their land or labor to some strong man in return for shelter and support; in such cases of “commendation” the baron usually assigned to “his man” a tract to be held as a “precarium,” on a lease revocable by the donor at any time; this precarious tenure became the usual form of serf possession of land. Feudalism was the economic subjection and military allegiance of a man to a superior in return for economic organization and military protection.
It cannot be rigidly defined, for it had a hundred variations in time and place. Its origins lay in Italy and Germany, but its most characteristic development came in France. In Britain it may have begun as the enserfment of Britons by Anglo-Saxon conquerors,3but for the most part it was there a Gallic importation from Normandy. It never matured in northern Italy or Christian Spain; and in the Eastern Empire the great landowners never developed military or judicial independence, nor that hierarchy of fealties which seemed in the West essential to feudalism. Large sectors of Europe’s peasantry remained unfeudalized: the shepherds and ranchers of the Balkans, eastern Italy, Spain; the vine growers of western Germany and southern France; the sturdy farmers of Sweden and Norway; the Teutonic pioneers beyond the Elbe; the mountaineers of the Carpathians, the Alps, the Apennines, and the Pyrenees. It was not to be expected that a continent so physically and climatically diverse should have a uniform economy. Even within feudalism conditions of contract and status varied from nation to nation, from manor to manor, from time to time. Our analysis will apply chiefly to the France and England of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.