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By H. W. C. Davis
Text in [square brackets] was added especially for this online publication by Ellopos
IV - FEUDALISM
The other members of the feudal state group themselves or are forcibly grouped under the rule of different persons in the feudal hierarchy. In the open country the soil is partly tilled by small free-holders, who pay to this or that lord a rent in money, kind, or services. Like the feudal sub-tenants these free-holders are, for most purposes, subject to the jurisdiction of their lord; though in the well organised state the royal judges protect them against the grosser forms of violence. But the greater part of the land is divided between servile village-communities, who give up perforce a large proportion of their working-days to the cultivation of the lord's demesne. The tendency of feudal law is to treat these peasants as slaves, to deny them the assistance of the royal law-courts, to regard them as holding their land at the will of their lord. In practice the lord finds that he cannot insist upon the full measure of his legal right. Though he has the right to reclaim all runaways, it is difficult to hunt them down; though he can fix the measure of his own demands, it is dangerous and unprofitable to arouse a spirit of mutiny.
A judge from whom his serfs have no appeal in matters that concern their tenure, he finds it politic to make and to observe definite contracts, which remain unaltered from one generation to another. Hence the condition of the serfs, though hard, is less precarious than we might suppose if we only studied what the feudal lawyer has to say about them. Turning from the country to the towns, we find that all are subject to a lord or to the King; that some are only half-emancipated communities of serfs; that in others the burgesses have the status of small free-holders; that in a minority, but a growing minority, of cases the burgesses have established the right to deal collectively with the lord, to be regarded as communes or free cities. In these cases there is a form of popular self-government under elected magistrates. Through the magistrates the town pays a fixed rent to the former lord; usually it claims the special protection of the King, and comes to hold the position of a tenant-in-chief (une seigneurie collective populaire).
No society could be, in spirit and in organisation, more anti-feudal than the free town of the Middle Ages; but it can only secure a safe existence by obtaining a definite position in the feudal hierarchy. In fact, the clergy are the only considerable class who succeed in resisting the universal tendency to feudalise all landed property and to find for every man a lord. Even they are compelled to make large concessions to the spirit of the age. It is only at the cost of long and ruinous conflicts that bishops and other prelates establish some distinction between their position and that of the ordinary tenant-in-chief. Even so it remains the law that the principal endowments of every religious foundation are fiefs held under a feudal contract of service. More successful, though not less difficult, was the struggle against the theory that the parish-priest is the vassal of his patron and may, by recognising his obligations as a vassal, acquire the vassal's privilege of passing on his office to his son.
Cf. Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) * Ancient Rome * Ancient Greece * The Making of Europe
Davis' Medieval Europe in Print or for Amazon Kindle