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18: Three Views of Feudalism

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We are accustomed to a capitalist economy, good communication and transportation, and to solving our problems at the state or national level, so we tend to think that decentralized authority is primitive and ineffective. This is not necessarily so, and feudalism is not completely foreign to American society. Let me try to discuss feudalism from three different aspects. The paragraphs in bold will provide the sort of discussion that you are likely to find in the average college textbook; those in regular print will provide some idea of the historical conditions under which the feudal organization of society arose; and those in red will discuss the growth of an example of American feudalism with which most of you are familiar, if only through films and TV.

Before we begin, we should note that the men and women of the middle ages never talked about feudalism. Feudalism is a term invented in the sixteenth century by royal lawyers - primarily in England - to describe the decentralized and complex social, political, and economic society out of which the modern state was emerging. The term "feudalism" came from the German vieh, or "cow," the measure of wealth among the early Germans, a term that gave rise to the medieval word fief. "Fief" simply meant "something of value." In the agricultural world of the time, "something of value" was usually land. But the sixteenth-century lawyers pictured this land as having been under the control of a powerful king who distributed much of it to his followers, men of distinction whose breeding and upbringing particularly fitted them for governing and giving battle.

It has been argued that historians have interpreted medieval documents and histories in terms of this view, and that, when we examine the documents more closely, there is actually very little evidence that society was really organized in such a fashion. This may very well be true, but a new and different picture of medieval society in the ninth through the fourteenth centuries has yet to be developed. Lacking anything possible better, it is only reasonable that we should turn our attention to the traditional portrayal of feudal society.


ineffective central government

Let us first consider the characteristics of feudalism.

Feudalism is a decentralized organization that arises when central authority cannot perform its functions and when it cannot prevent the rise of local powers.

In the isolation and chaos of the 9th and 10th centuries, European leaders no longer attempted to restore Roman institutions, but adopted whatever would work. The result was that Europe developed a relatively new and effective set of institutions, adapted to a moneyless economy, inadequate transportation and communication facilities, an ineffective central government, and a constant threat of armed attack by raiders such as the Vikings, Magyars, and Saracens. The most well-known of the institutions were manorialism (the organization of the peasants), monasticism (the organization of the churchmen), and feudalism (the institution of the aristocracy).

At the close of the First World War, hundreds of thousands of young men, trained to fight and laden with "war souvenirs" such as Luger pistols, hand grenades, Thompson submachine guns and the like, returned to an America in which there were not enough good jobs for them to fill, and in which the government was busily engaged in cutting expenditures (for such things as policemen) and was bending every effort in a constant (and fruitless) struggle to stop people from drinking alcoholic beverages (Prohibition)

In a feudal society, civil and military powers at the local level are assumed by great landowners or other people of similar wealth and prestige.

Much as churchmen assumed governmental authority with the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, local leaders, such as Count Robert of Paris, assumed the role previously exercised by government officials at the local level. Other individuals in other areas gathered retinues of fighting men and took over the role of the government in those territories they could control. Often enough these were imperial officials whom the imperial government could no longer keep in check, but others also emerged as local leaders.

In American cities in the 1920's, neighborhood gangs often arose. Since the neighborhoods were often ethnic, the gangs tended to be dominated by Italians, Irish, Germans, or whatever group was dominant in the district. The leaders of these gangs claimed jurisdiction over their neighborhood - "territory" or "turf" - and collected taxes in the form of "protection money" for the services they performed.

These local leaders and their retinues begin to form a warrior class distinct from the people of their territory.

The local leaders who emerged during the decay of the Carolingian Empire were generally armed men, particularly armed men mounted on horseback and possessing a fortified residence. As the Frankish empire conquered their neighbors, the Carolingian monarchs had to develop a means of holding and governing these new territories. They accomplished this by entrusting aspects of local government to favored followers and paying them with grants of land and revenues in the territories they were expected to fortify, garrison, defend and govern.

When the empire ceased to expand, these "class" of fighting men still needed new lands. They had been accustomed to raising large families so that, if one son were to die, there would be another to inherit the father's position. Consequently, their numbers steadily increased, and they found themselves forced to seize the lands of others to provide for their second and third sons. They first took control of the lands on which they were resident and, by doing so, weakened the monarch still further. They then took whatever lands they could from the imperial estates and, finally, began to seize nearby church lands. For the most part, the people of these lands welcomed the change, since they were trading a distant and ineffectual imperial government for a local and effective one.

Municipal governments at first tried to curb the growth of the gangsters, but their police soon found that they were outclassed. The gangsters drew from the trained fighting men of the demobilized army and built and used fast armored cars, submachine guns, hand grenades, and were often highly disciplined. The city governments were no more able to keep them from organizing their territories, than the highway patrols were able to overtake their supercharged cars. Moreover, local residents were not averse to paying protection money to someone in their own neighborhood who would actually provide protection, instead of paying taxes to fuel the graft and bribery of corrupt city governments.

The distinction between private rights and public authority disappears, and local control tends to become a personal and even hereditary matter.

Perhaps the "aristocracy" that emerged as the local leaders in the feudal age were doing no more than the Merovingian and Carolingian monarchs had done by considering their "territory" their private possession. This was not unusual during the middle ages; Various kings named Louis frequently signed their names as FRANCE. In any event, the feudal leaders began to treat governmental functions as private property that they could loan, give, away, or pass on to their children. It should be noted that money -- silver or gold coins -- had gradually vanished from use and that Europe and had adopted a barter system to meet their basic economic needs. Without legal tender, however, it was impossible to hire someone to provide needed services. The fact that the feudal leaders could lend someone a territory from which he could derive rents and renders in kind and services was an important factor in the new organization of Western Europe. The feudal structure of society emerged as local leaders gave their followers the income from the dues owed by the residents of a given territory in payment for their services -- which could vary considerably.

Perhaps the gangs simply followed the pattern set by city governments of the time, which put their political workers on salary by giving them a position in the city government where they could enjoy a regular income while still devoting their full time to advancing the political fortunes of their bosses. In any event, the gang leaders, or "bosses," who emerged from the mass of neighborhood gang leaders began to divide up their territories, giving their followers, or "boys," the right to a share of the income from a given district.

The feudal leaders often take over responsibility for the economic security of their territories, and dictate how resources are to be used, while at the same time establishing monopolies over some activities. This strengthens their presence at the local level and also makes their possessions even more valuable.

The feudal lords of Western Europe, through the men to whom they had distributed fiefs, began to exert economic control over the villages and districts under their control. The woods became the lord's possession, and hardwoods -- useful for building and weapons -- could not be cut except with the lord's express permission. All fuel had to be used sparingly, and the lord was paid for wood taken from the woodlands, game caught there, pigs put to pasture there, and so on. The lords also build ovens, baths, grain mills and the like as monopolies. Villagers had to patronize the lord's monopolies and pay for the privilege. This gave the lords the opportunity of granting fiefs other than land, such as the income from a mill in a certain village, or the revenue from fishing rights in a certain stream.

The gangs were soon aware that people wanted things that the government did not want them to have -- primarily alcohol, gambling, and prostitution -- and that the government could not prevent the gangs from providing those amenities. They were soon "licensing" or actually establishing illegal activities within their territories -- brothels, the numbers game, casinos, and, most of all, saloons ("speakeasies"). The gangs grew wealthy enough so that they could purchase the services of underpaid local officials, increase their own full- time personnel, and still have considerable income left over to invest in "legitimate" businesses

The feudal aristocracies are usually organized on the basis of private agreements, contracts between individuals

By the 900's, some local lords -- the duke of Aquitaine, the count of Toulouse, the count of Flanders, and other -- had become powerful enough that they began to absorb the lesser lords and territories around them. Sometimes this was a simple matter of conquest, but more often the result of a feudal war was an agreement between the two opponents in which one turned his lands over to the other and received them back as a fief in exchange for service.

In many cities of America, various territorial gangs absorbed their lesser neighbors, and began to take over the turf of their more formidable adversaries. This process, known as "muscling-in," usually took the form of attempting to infringe on one or more of one's neighbor's monopolies, such as the sale of whiskey, but it often led to open warfare. The war in Chicago between the Italian and Polish gangs of the South Side under the leadership of Al Capone against the North Side Irish-German mob of Dion O'Banion and his successor, Bugsy Moran, were particularly bloody and famous, ending with the St. Valentine's Day Massacre of 14 February 1927. Within a few years, each major city was under the control of a single individual -- the "Godfather" -- who managed the boys in his "family" and conferred with the Godfathers of the families of other cities to keep the peace and work together effectively. It was in this fashion that the "syndicate" emerged.


The private agreements that formed the network of mutual services were called contracts of homage and fealty, "homage" because one of the contractants agreed to become the servant (homme, or "man" of the other, and fealty, because he promised to be "feal, faithful" to him. Homage and fealty became formalized, romanticized, and overlaid with symbolism, but it is most easily understood as a simple contract.

The Party of the First Part - the dominus, often translated as "lord," but just as easily (and accurately) translated as "boss" - made an arrangement with the Party of the Second Part - the vassal, a word derived from the Celtic word for "boy," or miles, a word meaning "soldier". The Party of the First Part gave the Party of the Second Part "something of value" (a fief, something that would produce an income in services and kind over a long time), and promised him "respect" (meaning that he would not interfere with his enjoyment of the fief except for a very good reason) and justice (meaning that he would protect him against both other lords and, if necessary, other vassals of his.

The Party of the Second Part promised a number of things in return. The three main items were "relief," a payment of some sort that he gave the Party of the First Part for having agreed to take him on; "aid and counsel," which obligated him to attend the court of the Party of the First Part whenever he was called upon to do so, and to support and advise him; and "vassalage," which was usually but not always a period of military service when called. Some men got fiefs for service as accountants at the Treasury, or for acting as diplomats, or even for some rather silly things. It is said that one English noble held a nice fief on condition that he appear before the king each year at the royal Christmas court and simultaneously whistle, hop, and break wind. English kings were not noted for the subtlety of their humor.

The Party of the Second Part might additionally pledge to render one or more of a number of traditional services: to give the lord and his retinue three nights hospitality if they were in the neighborhood; to help ransom the Party of the First Part if he were captured and held prisoner; to contribute presents for the wedding of the Party of the First Part's eldest daughter and the knighting of his eldest son, and to contribute money to help defray the cost of the festivities.

There was frequently a ritual of bonding once the contract had been agreed upon by both sides. The Party of the Second Part would kneel before the Party of the First Part, who would take both the vassal's hands between his own as the vassal promised to love and respect the lord. The lord, in turn, would promise to honor and protect the vassal. They would then both rise, kiss, and exchange gifts, the Party of the Second Part giving the Party of the First Part the relief payment, and the Party of the First Part giving the Party of the Second Part a sword or some similarly "honorable" gift. The vassal then became a member of the lord's "familia" (family).

This was a powerful bond. Many of the medieval legends and tales turned upon the relationship between the lord and vassal; Lancelot's tragedy was that his love for Guenevere conflicted with his love for Arthur, while king Alfonso, the Cid's lord, consistently failed to keep his promises to love, respect and protect his outstanding vassal. Indeed, the feudal tie was so powerful that the rituals have persisted in many Western societies. The rituals of homage and fealty, for instance, have persisted in the traditional manner of proposing marriage. Many people think of feudalism as a primitive and inefficient system, but it did not appear to be so. Organized in this fashion, the Western Europeans succeeded in holding off the raiders and restoring a measure of peace that permitted a revival of trade and commerce about 1000. Besides, the Mafia uses the same organization (and even the same customs and terms) and are not considered either primitive or inefficient. Note also that most franchise enterprises, such as MacDonald's, uses essentially the same system.

Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
Medieval History
The University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas

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