1. The Slave
In those lands and times society consisted of freemen, serfs, and slaves. Freemen included nobles, clerics, professional soldiers, practitioners of the professions, most merchants and artisans, and peasants who owned their land with little or no obligation to any feudal lord, or leased it from a lord for a money rent. Such peasant proprietors constituted some four per cent of the farming population of England in the eleventh century; they were more numerous in western Germany, northern Italy, and southern France; theyprobably constituted a quarter of the total peasant population in Western Europe.4
Slavery diminished as serfdom increased. In twelfth-century England it was mostly confined to household service; in France north of the Loire it was negligible; in Germany it rose in the tenth century, when no compunction was felt in capturing pagan Slavs for menial tasks on German estates, or for sale in Moslem or Byzantine lands. Conversely, Moslems and Greeks were kidnaped by slave traders along the shores of the Black Sea, western Asia, or northern Africa for sale as farm hands, domestic servants, eunuchs, concubines, or prostitutes in Islam or Christendom.5 The slave trade flourished especially in Italy, probably due to the nearness of Moslem countries, which could be preyed upon with a good conscience; it seemed a fair revenge for Saracen raids.
An institution that had lasted throughout known history appeared inevitable and eternal, even to honest moralists. It is true that Pope Gregory I freed two of his slaves with admirable words about the natural liberty of all men;6 but he continued to use hundreds of slaves on the papal estates,7 and approved laws forbidding slaves to become clerics or marry free Christians.8 The Church denounced the sale of Christian captives to Moslems, but permitted the enslavement of Moslems and of Europeans not yet converted to Christianity. Thousands of captured Slavs and Saracens were distributed among monasteries as slaves; and slavery on church lands and papal estates continued till the eleventh century.9 Canon law sometimes estimated the wealth of church lands in slaves rather than in money; like secular law, it considered the slave as a chattel; it forbade church slaves to make wills, and decreed that any peculium or savings of which they died possessed should belong to the Church.10 The archbishop of Narbonne, in his will of 1149, left his Saracen slaves to the bishop of Béziers.11 St. Thomas Aquinas interpreted slavery as one consequence of Adam’s sin, and as economically expedient in a world where some must toil in order that others may be free to defend them.12 Such views were in the tradition of Aristotle, and in the spirit of the times. The rule of the Church, that her property should never be alienated except at its full market value,13 was unfortunate for her slaves and serfs; emancipation sometimes proved more difficult on ecclesiastical than on secular properties.14 Nevertheless the Church progressively restricted the slave traffic by forbidding the enslavement of Christians at a time when Christianity was spreading rapidly.
The decline of slavery was due not to moral progress but to economic change. Production under direct physical compulsion proved less profitable or convenient than production under the stimulus of acquisitive desire. Servitude continued, and the wordservusserved for both slave and serf; but in time it became the word serf, as villein became villain, and Slav became slave. It was the serf, not the slave, who made the bread of the medieval world.
2. The Serf
Typically the serf tilled a plot of land owned by a lord or baron who gave him a life tenure and military protection as long as he paid an annual rent in products, labor, or money. He could be evicted at the owner’s will;15 and at his death the land passed to his children only by consent and satisfaction of the lord. In France he could be sold independently of the land, for some forty shillings ($400.00?); sometimes he (i.e., his labor) was sold by his owner in part to one person, in part to another. In France he could abjure the feudal contract by surrendering the land and all his possessions to the seigneur. In England he was denied this right of migration, and fugitive medieval serfs were recaptured as zealously as fugitive modern slaves.
The feudal dues of the serf to the owner of his land were numerous and diverse; some intelligence must have been required even to remember them. (1) He paid annually three taxes in money: (a) a small head tax, to the government but through the baron; (b) a small rent (cens); (c) an arbitrary charge (taille) levied by the owner yearly or of tener. (2) He annually gave the lord a share—usually a dîme or tenth—of his crops and livestock. (3) He owed his lord many days of unpaid labor (corvée); this was an inheritance from older economies, in which tasks like clearing woods, draining marshes, digging canals, raising dykes, were performed by the peasants collectively as an obligation to the community or king. Some lords required three days weekly through most of the year, four or five days a week in plowing or harvest time; additional labor days, paid only by meals, might be exacted in emergencies. This obligation of corvée lay upon only one male in each household. (4) The serf was obliged to grind his corn, bake his bread, brew his beer, press his grapes, at the lord’s mill, oven, vat, or press, and pay a small fee for each such use. (5) He paid a fee for the right to fish, hunt, or pasture his animals, on the lord’s domain. (6)His actions at law had to be brought before the baronial court, and cost him a fee varying with the gravity of the case. (7) He had to serve at call in the baron’s regiment in war. (8) If the baron was captured, the serf was expected to contribute to the ransom. (9) He contributed also to the substantial gift due to the lord’s son on being made a knight. (10) He paid the baron a tax on all products that he took for sale to market or fair. (11) He could not sell his beer or wine until the lord had had two weeks’ prior time to sell the lord’s beer or wine. (12) In many cases he was obliged to buy a prescribed quantity of wine yearly from his lord; if he did not buy in time, says one customal (a collection of the laws of a manor), “then the lord shall pour a four-gallon measure over the man’s roof; if the wine runs down, the tenant must pay for it; if it runs upward, he shall pay nothing.”16 (13) He paid a fine if he sent a son to higher education or gave him to the Church, for thereby the manor lost a hand. (14) He paid a tax, and required the lord’s consent, in case he or his children married a person not belonging to his manor, for then the lord would lose some or all of the offspring; on many estates permission and fee were required for any marriage at all. (15) In scattered instances17 we hear of the ius primae noctis or droit du seigneur, whereby the lord might claim the “right of the first night” with the serf’s bride; but in almost all cases the serf was allowed to “redeem” his bride by paying a fee to the lord;18 in this form the ius primae noctis survived in Bavaria till the eighteenth century.19 On some English estates the lord fined the peasant whose daughter had sinned; on some Spanish estates a peasant wife convicted of adultery forfeited part or all of her belongings to the lord.20 (16) If the peasant died without issue residing with him, the house and land reverted to the lord by escheat. If his heir was an unmarried daughter, she could retain the holding only by marrying a man living on the same manor. In any event, as a kind of inheritance tax, the lord, on the death of a serf tenant, was entitled to take an animal, or an article of furniture or clothing, from the holding; in some cases the parish priest took a similar mortu-arium;21 in France these death dues were exacted only when the serf died without a codomiciled heir. (17) On some—especially on ecclesiasticalmanors he paid an annual and an inheritance tax to the Vogt who provided military defense for the estate. To the Church the peasant paid an annual tithe or tenth of his produce.
From so varied an assortment of dues—never all exacted from one family—it is impossible to calculate the total of a serf’s obligations. For late medieval Germany it has been reckoned at two thirds of his produce.21a The power of custom, pre-eminent in agricultural regimes, favored the serf: usually his dues in money and kind tended to remain the same through centuries,22 despite rising production and depreciated currencies. Many disabilities or obligations that lay on the serf in theory or law were softened or annulled by baronial indulgence, effective resistance, or the erosion of time.23 Perhaps in general the misery of the medieval serf has been exaggerated; the dues exacted of him were largely in lieu of a money rent to the owner, and taxes to the community, to maintain public services and public works; probably they bore a smaller proportion to his income than our federal, state, county, and school taxes bear to our income today.24 The average peasant of the twelfth century was at least as well off as some sharecroppers in modern states, and better off than a Roman proletaire in Augustus’ reign.25 The baron did not consider himself an exploiter; he functioned actively on the manor, and seldom enjoyed great wealth. The peasants, till the thirteenth century, looked up to him with admiration, often with affection; if the lord became a childless widower they sent deputations to him to urge remarriage, lest the estate be left without a regular heir, and be despoiled in a war of succession.26 Like most economic and political systems in history, feudalism was what it had to be to meet the necessities of place and time and the nature of man.
The peasant’s cottage was of fragile wood, usually thatched with straw and turf, occasionally with shingles. We hear of no fire-fighting organization before 1250; when one of these cottages took fire it was usually a total loss. As often as not the house had only one room, at most two; a wood-burning fireplace, an oven, a kneading trough, table and benches, cupboard and dishes, utensils and andirons, caldron and pothanger, and near the oven, on the earthen floor, an immense mattress of feathers or straw, on which the peasant, his wife and children, and his overnight guest all slept in promiscuous and mutual warmth. Pigs and fowl had the run of the house. The women kept the place as clean as circumstances would permit, but the busy peasants found cleanliness a nuisance, and stories told how Satan excluded serfs from hell because he could not bear their smell.27 Near the cottage was a barn with horse and cows, perhaps a beehive and a hennery. Near the barn was a dunghill to which all animal or human members of the household contributed. Roundabout were the tools of agriculture and domestic industry. A cat controlled the mice, and a dog watched over all.
Dressed in a blouse of cloth or skins, a jacket of leather or wool, belt and trousers, high shoes or boots, the peasant must have made a sturdy figure, not much different from the peasant of France today; we must picture him not as an oppressed and beaten man, but as a strong and patient hero of the plow, sustained, as every man is, by some secret, however irrational, pride. His wife worked as hard as himself, from dawn to dark. In addition she supplied him with children; and since children were assets on the farm, she bore them abundantly; nevertheless we read in the Franciscan Pelagius (c. 1330) how some peasants “often abstain from their wives, lest children be born, fearing, under pretext of poverty, that they cannot bring up so many.”28
The food of the peasant was substantial and wholesome—dairy products, eggs, vegetables, and meat; but genteel historians mourn that he had to eat black—i.e., whole grain—bread.29 He shared in the social life of the village, but had no cultural interests. He could not read; a literate serf would have been an offense to his illiterate lord. He was ignorant of everything but farming, and not too skilled in that. His manners were rough and hearty, perhaps gross; in this turmoil of European history he had to survive by being a good animal, and he managed it. He was greedy because poor, cruel because fearful, violent because repressed, churlish because treated as a churl. He was the mainstay of the Church, but he had more superstition than religion. Pelagius charged him with cheating the Church of her tithes, and neglecting to observe the holydays and the fasts; Gautier de Coincy (thirteenth century) complained that the serf “has no more fear of God than a sheep, does not give a button for the laws of Holy Church.”30 He had his moments of heavy, earthy humor, but in the fields and in his home he was a man of spare speech, straitened vocabulary, and solemn mood, too consumed by toil and chores to waste his energy on words or dreams. Despite his superstitions he was a realist; he knew the merciless whims of the sky, and the certainty of death; one season of drouth could bring him and his brood to starvation. Sixty times between 970 and 1100 famine mowed men down in France; no British peasant could forget the famines of 1086 and 1125 in Merrie England; and the bishop of Trier in the twelfth century was shocked to see starving peasants kill and eat his horse.31 Flood and plague and earthquake entered the play, and made every comedy a tragedy at last.
3. The Village Community
Around the baronial villa some fifty to five hundred peasants—serfs, half free, or free—built their village, living not in isolated homesteads but, for safety’s sake, close together within the walls of the settlement. Usually the village was part of one or more manors; most of its officials were appointed by the baron, and were responsible only to him; but the peasants chose a reeve or provost to mediate between them and the lord, and to co-ordinate their agricultural activity. In the market place they gathered periodically to barter goods in the residuum of trade that survived the economic self-containment of the manor. The village rural household raised its own vegetables and some of its meat, spun its wool or linen, made most of its clothing. The village blacksmith hammered out iron tools, the tanner made leather goods, the carpenter built cottages and furniture, the wheelwright made carts; fullers, dyers, masons, saddlers, cobblers, soapmakers … lived in the village or came there transiently to ply their crafts on demand; and a public butcher or baker competed with the peasant and the housewife in preparing meat and bread.
Nine tenths of the feudal economy were agricultural. Normally, in eleventh-century France and England, the cultivated land of the manor was yearly divided into three fields; one was planted to wheat or rye, one to barley or oats, one was left fallow. Each field was subdivided into acre or half-acre strips, separated by “balks” of unplowed turf. The village officials assigned to each peasant a variable number of strips in each field, and bound him to rotate his crops in accord with a plan fixed by the community. The whole field was plowed, harrowed, planted, cultivated, and harvested by the joint labor of all. The scattering of one man’s strips among three or more fields may have aimed to give him a fair share of unequally productive lands; and the co-operative tillage may have been a survival from a primitive communism of which scant trace remains. In addition to these strips each peasant fulfilling his feudal dues had the right to cut timber, pasture his cattle, and gather hay in the manorial woods, common, or “green.” And usually he had enough land around his cottage for a garden and flowers.
Agricultural science in feudal Christendom could hardly compare with that of Columella’s Romans, or of Moslem Mesopotamia or Spain. Stubble and other refuse were burned on the fields to fertilize the soil and rid it of insects and weeds; marl or other limy earths provided a crude manure; there were no artificial fertilizers, and the costs of transport limited the use of animal dung; the archbishop of Rouen emptied the offal of his stables into the Seine instead of carting it to his fields in nearby Deville. Peasants pooled their pence to buy a plow or harrow for their common use. Till the eleventh century the ox was the draft animal; he ate less expensively, and in old age could be eaten more profitably than the horse. But about 1000 the harness makers invented the stiff collar that would allow a horse to draw a load without choking; so dressed, the horse could plow three or four times as much in a day as the ox; in wet temperate climates speed of plowing was important; so during the eleventh century the horse more and more replaced the ox, and lost his high status as reserved for travel, hunting, and war.32 Water mills, long known to the Moslem East, entered Western Europe toward the end of the twelfth century.33
The Church eased the toil of the peasant with Sundays and holydays, on which it was a sin to do “servile work.” “Our oxen,” said the peasants, “know when Sunday comes, and will not work on that day.”34 On such days, after Mass, the peasant sang and danced, and forgot in hearty rustic laughter the dour burden of sermon and farm. Ale was cheap, speech was free and profane, and loose tales of womankind mingled with awesome legends of the saints. Rough games of football, hockey, wrestling, and weight throwing pitted man against man, village against village. Cockfighting and bullbaiting flourished; and hilarity reached its height when, within a closed circle, two blindfolded men, armed with cudgels, tried to kill a goose or a pig. Sometimes, of an evening, peasants visited one another, played indoor games, and drank; usually, however, they stayed at home, for no streets were lit; and at home, since candles were dear, they went to bed soon after dark. In the long nights of the winter the family welcomed the cattle into the cottage, thankful for their heat.
So, by hard labor and mute courage, rather than by the initiatives and skills that proper incentives breed, the peasants of Europe fed themselves and their masters, their soldiers and clergy and kings. They drained marshes, raised dykes, cleared woods and canals, cut roads, built homes, advanced the frontier of cultivation, and won the battle between jungle and man. Modern Europe is their creation. Looking now at these neat hedges and ordered fields, we cannot see the centuries of toil and tribulation, breaking back and heart, that beat the raw materials of reluctantly bountiful nature into the economic foundations of our life. Women, too, were soldiers in that war; it was their patient fertility that conquered the earth. Monks fought for a time as bravely as any; planted their monasteries as outposts in the wilds, forged an economy out of chaos, and begot villages in the wilderness. At the beginning of the Middle Ages the greater part of Europe’s soil was untilled and unpeopled forest and waste; at their end the Continent had been won for civilization. Perhaps, in proper perspective, this was the greatest campaign, the noblest victory, the most vital achievement, of the Age of Faith.
4. The Lord
Under every system of economy men who can manage men manage men who can only manage things. In feudal Europe the manager of men was the baron—in Latin dominus, in French seigneur (the Roman senior), in German Herr (master), in English lord.His functions were threefold: to give military protection to his lands and their inhabitants; to organize agriculture, industry, and trade on these lands; to serve his liege lord or his king in war. In an economy reduced to elementals and fragments by centuries of migration, invasion, rapine, and war, society could survive only by the local independence and sufficiency of food supply and soldiery. Those who could organize defense and tillage became the natural lords of the land. Ownership and management of land became the source of wealth and power; and an age of landed aristocracy began that would last till the Industrial Revolution.
The basic principle of feudalism was mutual fealty: the economic and military obligation of serf or vassal to the lord, of lord to suzerain or superior lord, of suzerain to king, of king to suzerain, of suzerain to lord, of lord to vassal and serf. In return for the services of his serfs, the lord gave them land on a life tenure verging on ownership; he allowed them, for a modest fee, the use of his ovens, presses, mills, waters, woods, and fields; he commuted many labor dues for small money payments, and let others lapse in the oblivion of time. He did not dispossess the serf—usually he took care of him—in helpless sickness or old age.35 On feast days he might open his gates to the poor, and feed all who came. He organized the maintenance of bridges, roads, canals, and trade; he found markets for the manor’s surplus products, “hands” for its operations, money for its purchases. He brought in good stock for breeding purposes, and allowed his serfs to service their flocks with his selected males. He could strike—in some localities or circumstances he could kill—a serf with impunity; but his sense of economy controlled his brutality. He exercised judicial as well as military powers over his domain, and profited unduly from fines levied in the manorial court; but this court, though often intimidated by his bailiff, was mostly manned by serfs themselves; and that the rude justice there decreed was not too oppressive appears from the readiness of the serf to buy indemnity from service in these judicial assemblies. Any serf who cared and dared could speak his mind in the manorial court; some dared; and in their piecemeal and unintended way these tribunals helped to forge the liberties that ended serfdom.
A feudal lord could own more than one manor or estate. In such case he appointed a “seneschal” to supervise his “domain”—i.e., all his manors—and a steward or bailiff for each; and he would move from manor to manor with his household to consume their products on the spot. He might have a castle on each of his estates. Descended from the walled camp (castrum, castellum) of the Roman legions, from the fortified villa of the Roman noble, or from the fortress or burg of the German chieftain, the feudal castle or château was built less for comfort than for security. Its outermost protection was a wide, deep fosse or moat; the earth thrown up and inward from the moat formed a mound into which were sunk square posts bound together to form a continuous stockade. Across the moat a cleated drawbridge led up to an iron gate or portcullis, which protected a massive door in the castle wall. Within this wall were stables, kitchen, storehouses, outhouses, bakery, laundry, chapel, and servants’ lodgings, usually all of wood. In war the tenants of the manor crowded with their cattle and movables into this enclosure. At its center rose the donjon, the house of the master; in most cases it was a large square tower, also of wood; by the twelfth century it was built of stone and took a rounded form as easier for defense. The lowest story of the donjon was a storehouse and dungeon; above this dwelt the lord and his family. From these donjons, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, developed the castles and châteaux of England, Germany, and France, whose impregnable stones were the military basis of the lord’s power against his tenants and the king.
The interior of the donjon was dark and confined. Windows were few and small, and seldom glazed; usually canvas, oiled paper, shutters, or lattices kept out most rain and much light; artificial light was provided by candles or torches. In most cases there was but one room to each of the three stories. Ladders and trap doors, or winding stairs, connected the floors. On the second story was the main hall, serving as the baron’s court of justice, and as dining room, living room, and bedroom for most of his household. At one end there might be a raised platform or dais, on which the lord, his family, and his guest ate their meals; others ate from removable tables placed before benches in the aisles. At retiring time mattresses were laid upon the floor or upon low wooden bedsteads in the aisles; all the household slept in this one room, with screens providing privacy. The walls were whitewashed or painted; they were adorned with banners, weapons, and armor, and the room might be protected from drafts by hangings or tapestries. The floor, paved with tile or stone, was covered with rushes and boughs. In the middle of the room a kind of central heating was generated by a wood fire in a hearth. Till the later Middle Ages there was no chimney; smoke escaped through a louver or “lantern” in the roof. Behind the dais a door opened into a “solar,” where the lord, his family, and his guest might take their ease and the sun; furniture was more comfortable there, with a carpet, a fireplace, and a luxurious bed.
The lord of the manor dressed himself in a tunic, usually of colored silk, adorned with some geometrical or floral design; a cape covering the shoulders, and loose enough to be raised over the head; short drawers and breeches; stockings that reached up the thighs; and long shoes with toes curled up like prows. At his belt swung a scabbard and sword; from his neck usually hung some pendant like a cross. To distinguish one helmeted and armored knight from another in the First Crusade,36 European nobles adopted the Islamic practice37 of marking their garments, livery, standards, armor, and equipage with heraldic devices or coats of arms; henceforth heraldry developed an esoteric jargon intelligible only to heralds and knights.* Despite all adornments the lord was no parasitic idler. He rose at dawn, mounted his tower to detect any approaching peril, hastily breakfasted, perhaps attended Mass, had “dinner” at 9 A.M., supervised the multifarious operations of the manor, shared actively in some of them, gave orders of the day to steward, butler, groom, and other servitors, received wayfarers and visitors, had “supper” with them and his family at five, and usually retired at nine. On some days the routine was broken by hunting, more rarely by tournaments, now and then by war. He entertained frequently, and exchanged presents lavishly with his guests.
His wife was almost as busy as himself. She bore and reared many children. She directed the many servants (with an occasional box on the ear), kept an eye on bakery, kitchen, and laundry, superintended the making of butter and cheese, the brewing of beer, the salting down of meat for the winter, and that major household industry of knitting, sewing, spinning, weaving, and embroidery, which made most of the family’s clothing. If her husband went to war she took over the military and economic management of the estate, and was expected to supply his financial needs as he campaigned; if he was taken prisoner she had to squeeze a ransom for him out of the toil of his serfs or from the sale of her finery and gems. If her husband died sonless she might inherit the seigneury, and become its domina, dame; but she was expected to remarry soon to provide the estate and her suzerain with military protection or service; and the suzerain limited her choice to a few candidates capable of meeting these obligations. In the privacy of the castle she could be an amazon or a termagant, and give her husband blow for blow. In her leisure hours she dressed her vigorous body in flowing fur-hemmed robes of silk, dainty headgear and footwear, and gleaming jewelry—an ensemble fit to send a troubadour into amorous or literary ecstasy.
Her children received an education quite different from that of the universities. The sons of the aristocracy were rarely sent to public schooling; in many cases no effort was made to teach them how to read. Literacy was left to clerks or scribes who could be hired for a pittance. Intellectual knowledge was scorned by most feudal knights; du Guesclin, one of the most honored figures of chivalry, trained himself in all the arts of war, and learned to face all weathers stoutly, but never bothered to learn how to read; only in Italy and Byzantium did the nobles carry on a literary tradition. Instead of going to a school, the boy of knightly family was sent, about the age of seven, to serve as page in another aristocratic household. There he learned obedience, discipline, manners, dress, the knightly code of honor, and the skills of joust and war; perhaps the local priest added some training in letters and reckoning. Girls were taught a hundred useful or pretty arts by merely seeing and doing. They took care of guests, and of the knight returning from battle or tournament; they unbuckled his armor, prepared his bath, laid out clean linen and raiment and perfumes for him, and waited on him at table with modest courtesy and tutored grace. They, rather than the boys, learned to read and write; they provided most of the audience for troubadours, trouvères, and jongleurs, and for the romantic prose and poetry of the time.
The baron’s household often included some vassals or retainers. The vassal was a man who, in return for his military service, personal attendance, or political support, received from the lord some substantial boon or privilege—usually a tract of land with its serfs; in such cases usufruct belonged to the vassal, ownership remained with the lord. A man too proud or strong to be a serf, yet too limited to provide his own military security, performed an act of “homage” to a feudal baron: knelt bareheaded and weaponless before him, placed his hands in the hands of the seigneur, declared himself that lord’s homme or man (while retaining his rights as a freeman), and by an oath on sacred relics or the Bible pledged the lord eternal fealty. The seigneur raised him, kissed him, invested him with a fief,* and gave him, in symbol thereof, a straw, stick, lance, or glove. Thenceforward the seigneur owed his vassal protection, friendship, fidelity, and economic and legal aid; he must not, says a medieval lawyer, insult his vassal, or seduce his vassal’s wife or daughter;39if he does, the vassal may “throw down the glove” as a de-fy—i.e., as a release from fealty—and yet keep his fief.
The vassal might “subinfeudate” part of his land to a lesser vassal, who would then bear the same relation and responsibility to him that he bore to his lord. A man might hold fiefs from several lords, and owe them “simple homage” and limited service; but to one “liege” lord he pledged “liege homage”—full allegiance and service in peace and war. The lord himself, however great, might be vassal to another lord by holding property or privilege in fief from him; he might even be vassal to—hold a fief from—the vassal of another lord. All lords were vassals of the king. In these intricate relationships the prime bond was not economic but military; a man gave or owed military service and personal fealty to a lord; property was merely his reward. In theory feudalism was a magnificent system of moral reciprocity, binding the men of an endangered society to one another in a complex web of mutual obligation, protection, and fidelity.
5. The Feudal Church
Sometimes the lord of the manor was a bishop or an abbot. Though many monks labored with their hands, and many monasteries and cathedrals shared in parish tithes, additional support was necessary for great ecclesiastical establishments; and this came mostly from kings and nobles in gifts of land, or shares in feudal revenues. As these gifts accumulated, the Church became the largest landholder in Europe, the greatest of feudal suzerains. The monastery of Fulda owned 15,000 small villas, that of St. Gall had 2000 serfs;40Alcuin at Tours was lord of 20,000 serfs.41 Archbishops, bishops, and abbots received investiture from the king, pledged their fealty to him like other feudatories, carried such titles as duke and count, minted coin, presided over episcopal or abbey courts, and took on the feudal tasks of military service and agricultural management. Bishops or abbots accoutered with armor and lance became a frequent sight in Germany and France; Richard of Cornwall, in 1257, mourned that England had no such “warlike and mettlesome bishops.”42 So enmeshed in the feudal web, the Church found herself a political, economic, and military, as well as a religious, institution; her “temporalities” or material possessions, her “feudalities” or feudal rights and obligations, became a scandal to strict Christians, a talking point for heretics, a source of consuming controversy between emperors and popes. Feudalism feudalized the Church.
6. The King
Just as the Church was in the twelfth century a feudal and hierarchical structure of mutual protection, service, and fealty, sanctioned by benefices and topped by a suzerain pope, so the secular feudal regime demanded for its completion a lord of all vassals, a suzerain of all secular suzerains, a king. Theoretically the king was the vassal of God, and governed by divine right in the sense that God permitted, and thereby authorized, his rule. Practically, however, the king had been elevated by election, inheritance, or war. Men like Charlemagne, Otto I, William the Conqueror, Philip Augustus, Louis IX, Frederick II, and Louis the Fair enlarged their inherited power by force of character or arms; but normally the kings of feudal Europe were not so much the rulers of their peoples as the delegates of their vassals. They were chosen or accepted by the great barons and ecclesiastics; their direct power was limited to their own feudal domain or manors; elsewhere in their kingdom the serf and vassal swore fealty to the lord who protected them, rarely to the king whose small and distant forces could not reach out to guard the scattered outposts of the realm. The state, in feudalism, was merely the king’s estate.
In Gaul this atomization of rule proceeded furthest because the Carolingian princes weakened themselves by dividing the empire, because the bishops subdued them to ecclesiastical subservience, and because the Norse attacks broke most violently upon France. In this perfected feudalism the king was primus inter pares; he stood an inch or two above the princes, dukes, marquises, and counts; but in practice he was, like these “peers of the realm,” a feudal baron limited for revenue to his own lands, forced to move from one royal manor to another for sustenance, and dependent in war and peace upon the military aid or diplomatic service of rich vassals who seldom pledged him more than forty days of armed attendance in the year, and spent half their time plotting to unseat him. To win or reward support, the crown had granted estate after estate to powerful men; in the tenth and eleventh centuries too small a domain remained to the French king to give him secure ascendancy over his vassal lords. When they made their estates hereditary, established their own police and courts, and minted their own coinage, he lacked the force to prevent them. He could not interfere with the jurisdiction of these vassals over their own lands except in the capital cases that appealed to him; he could not send his officers or tax collectors into their domains; he could not stop them from making independent treaties or waging independent war. In feudal theory the French king owned all the lands of the lords who called him their sovereign; in reality he was merely a great landlord, not necessarily the greatest; and never did his holdings equal those of the Church.
But as the inability of the kings to protect their realm had generated feudalism, so the inability of feudal lords to maintain order among themselves, or to provide a uniform government for an expanding commercial economy, weakened the barons and strengthened the kings. The zeal for martial contests absorbed the aristocracies of feudal Europe in private and public wars; the Crusades, the Hundred Years’ War, the Wars of the Roses, and finally the wars of religion drank up their blood. Some of them, impoverished and recognizing no law, became robber barons who pillaged and murdered at will; and the excesses of liberty called for a unified power that would maintain order throughout the realm. Commerce and industry generated a growing and wealthy class outside the feudal bond; merchants resented feudal tolls and the insecurity of transport through feudal domains; and they demanded that private law should be superseded by a central government. The king allied himself with their class and the rising towns; they provided the finances for the assertion and extension of his authority; and all who felt oppressed or injured by the lords looked to the king for rescue and redress. The ecclesiastical barons were usually vassal and loyal to the king; the popes, however often at odds with royalty, found it easier to deal with a monarch than with a scattered and half-lawless nobility. Upheld by these diverse forces, the French and English kings made their power hereditary, instead of elective, by crowning a son or brother before their own death; and men accepted hereditary monarchy as the alternative to feudal anarchy. The improvement of communication and the increased circulation of money made regular taxation possible; the mounting royal revenue financed larger royal armies; the rising class of jurists attached themselves to the throne, and strengthened it by the centralizing influence of revived Roman law. By the year 1250 the jurists asserted the royal jurisdiction over all persons in the realm; and by that time the oath of allegiance was taken by all Frenchmen not to their lord but to their king. At the end of the thirteenth century Philip the Fair was strong enough to subdue not only his barons, but the papacy itself.
The French kings softened the transition for the aristocracy by replacing the rights of private coinage, judgment, and war with titles and privileges at the royal court. The greater vassals formed the curia regis, or king’s court; they became courtiers instead of potentates; and the ritual of the baronial castle graduated into a ceremonious attendance upon the audiences, the table, and the bedchamber of the king. The sons and daughters of the nobility were sent to serve the king and queen as pages or maids of honor, and learned the courtesies of the court; the royal household became the school of the aristocracy of France. The culminating ceremony was the coronation of the French king at Reims, of the German emperor at Aachen or Frankfort; then all the elite of the land gathered in awesome raiment and equipage; the Church extended all the mystery and majesty of her rites to solemnize the accession of the new ruler; his power became thereby a divine authority, which no man could gainsay except through brazen blasphemy. The feudal lords crowded to the court of the monarchy that had subdued them, and the Church conferred divine right upon the kings who would destroy her European leadership and power.