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1828

“The Feudal System Was Necessary:” Guizot’s Fourth Lecture

“All the great elements of society were drawn within the feudal enclosure, so even the…most trifling circumstances of common life, became subject to feudalism.”

Editor’s Note

After establishing the origins of European feudalism, Francois Guizot’s fourth lecture on “The History of Civilization in Europe” proceeds to explain exactly what feudalism was.  Given that the French people and aristocracy had recently taken turns remaking history, Guizot urged his audience to look at feudalism with fresh perspectives attuned to analysis rather than simple criticism.  While there was (and remains) much to criticize about feudalism, Guizot argues that “in the tenth century the feudal system was necessary, and the only social system practicable.”  While his primary evidence for this controversial assertion remained “the universality of its adoption,” Guizot maintains that in its own way, feudalism, too, was revolutionary.  By fusing Germanic individualism, visions of Christian theocracy, and the corporate-imperial remnants of Western Rome, the earliest of European feudal lords created a new, dynamic, vibrant civilization of their own.  Yes, the new feudal regimes were incredibly oppressive—as his previous lecture argued, all governments are founded on force and carry with them the seeds of social resentment and revolution.  When stitched together, generation to generation and over the centuries, such tensions became the historian’s narrative of change over time.  According to Guizot, however, the special characteristic of European civilization was the inability of any one powerful element to overcome the others.  Thus, to counteract the encroaching power of early feudal lords, barons, municipalities, bishops, and a chorus of similar groups petitioned legal authorities for the protection of person and property.  Virtually all levels and components of early medieval society, therefore, incorporated themselves (or were forced) into the feudal patchwork of overlapping, interacting, and reciprocal legal, social, and economic obligations.  The internal competition promoted stability and long-term deference to the forces of law and order.  In Guizot’s summation, therefore, “Feudalism, as a whole, was truly a confederation. It rested upon the same principles, for example, as those on which is based, in the present day, the federative system of the United States of America.”

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

The History of Civilization in Europe, Excerpts.

By Francois Pierre Guillaume Guizot

New York: D. Appleton and Company.  1896.

LECTURE IV.: THE FEUDAL SYSTEM.

…We are now compelled to consider—science and reality—theory and practice—right and fact—and to make them move side by side. Down to the present time these two powers have lived apart. The world has been accustomed to see theory and practice following two different routes, unknown to each other, or at least never meeting. When doctrines, when general ideas, have wished to intermeddle in affairs, to influence the world, it has only been able to effect this under the appearance and by the aid of fanaticism. Up to the present time the government of human societies, the direction of their affairs, have been divided between two sorts of influences; on one side theorists, men who would rule all according to abstract notions—enthusiasts; on the other, men ignorant of all rational principle,—experimentalists, whose only guide is expediency. This state of things is now over…

A great proof that in the tenth century the feudal system was necessary, and the only social system practicable, is the universality of its adoption. Wherever barbarism ceased, feudalism became general. This at first struck men as the triumph of chaos. All unity, all general civilization seemed gone; society on all sides seemed dismembered; a multitude of petty, obscure, isolated, incoherent societies arose. This appeared, to those who lived and saw it, universal anarchy—the dissolution of all things.  Consult the poets and historians of the day: they all believed that the end of the world was at hand. Yet this was, in truth, a new and real social system which was forming: feudal society was so necessary, so inevitable, so altogether the only consequence that could flow from the previous state of things, that all entered into it, all adopted its form. Even elements the most foreign to this system, the Church, the free communities, royalty, all were constrained to accommodate themselves to it…All things were given in fief, not only estates, but rights and privileges: the right to cut wood in the forests, the privilege of fishing. The churches gave their surplice-fees in fief: the revenues of baptism—the fees for churching women. In the same manner, too, that all the great elements of society were drawn within the feudal enclosure, so even the smallest portions, the most trifling circumstances of common life, became subject to feudalism…

The establishment of the feudal system wrought [a revolutionary change], which had a powerful and striking influence upon European civilization. It changed the distribution of the population. Hitherto the lords of the territory, the conquering population, had lived united in masses more or less numerous, either settled in cities, or moving about the country in bands; but by the operation of the feudal system these men were brought to live isolated, each in his own dwelling, at long distances apart…The social preponderance—the government of society, passed at once from cities to the country; the baronial courts of the great landed proprietors took the place of the great national assemblies—the public body was lost in the thousand little sovereignties into which every kingdom was split. This was the first consequence—a consequence purely physical, of the triumph of the feudal system…

Having fixed upon an elevated solitary spot, strong by nature, and which he takes care to render secure, the lordly proprietor of the domain builds his castle. Here he settles himself, with his wife and children, and perhaps some few freemen, who, not having obtained fiefs, not having themselves become proprietors, have attached themselves to his fortunes, and continued to live with him and form a part of his household. These are the inhabitants of the interior of the castle. At the foot of the hill on which this castle stands we find huddled together a little population of peasants, of serfs, who cultivate the lands of the possessor of the fief. In the midst of this group of cottages religion soon planted a church and a priest. A priest, in these early days of feudalism, was generally the chaplain of the baron, and the curate of the village; two offices which by and by became separated, and the village had its pastor dwelling by the side of his church…

A feeling of personal consequence, of individual liberty, was a prevailing feature in the character of the barbarians. The feeling here, however, was of a different nature; it was no longer simply the liberty of the man, of the warrior, it was the importance of the proprietor, of the head of the family, of the master. His situation, with regard to all around him, would naturally beget in him an idea of superiority—a superiority of a peculiar nature, and very different from that we meet with in other systems of civilization…The greatness of [the Roman] aristocrats, associated with a religious and political character, belonged to the situation, to the corporation in general, rather than to the individual. That of the proprietor of a fief belonged to himself alone; he held nothing of any one; all his rights, all his power, centered in himself. He is no religious magistrate; he forms no part of a senate; it is in the individual, in his own person, that all his importance resides—all that he is, he is of himself, in his own name alone. What a vast influence must a situation like this have exercised over him who enjoyed it! What haughtiness, what pride, must it have engendered! Above him, no superior of whom he was but the representative and interpreter; near him no equals; no general and powerful law to restrain him—no exterior force to control him; his will suffered no check but from the limits of his power, and the presence of danger…

[The] spirit of inheritance is a natural off-shoot of the spirit of family, but it nowhere took such deep root as in the feudal system, where it was nourished by the nature of the property with which the family was, as it were, incorporated. The fief differed from other possessions in this, that it constantly required a chief, or owner, who could defend it, manage it, discharge the obligations by which it was held, and thus maintain its rank in the general association of the great proprietors of the kingdom. There thus became a kind of identification of the possessor of the fief with the fief itself, and with all its future possessors…

Quitting the baronial dwelling, let us now descend to the little population that surrounds it. Everything here wears a different aspect. The disposition of man is so kindly and good, that it is almost impossible for a number of individuals to be placed for any length of time in a social situation without giving birth to a certain moral tie between them: sentiments of protection, of benevolence, of affection, spring up naturally. Thus it happened in the feudal system. There can be no doubt, but that after a certain time, kind and friendly feelings would grow up between the feudal lord and his serfs. This, however, took place in spite of their relative situation, and by no means through its influence. Considered in itself, this situation was radically vicious. There was nothing morally common between the holder of the fief and his serfs. They formed part of his estate; they were his property; and under this word property are comprised, not only all the rights which we delegate to the public magistrate to exercise in the name of the state, but likewise all those which we possess over private property: the right of making laws, of levying taxes, of inflicting punishment, as well as that of disposing of them—or selling them. There existed not, in fact, between the lord of the domain and its cultivators, so far as we consider the latter as men, either rights, guarantee, or society.

From this I believe has arisen that almost universal, invincible hatred which country people have at all times borne to the feudal system, to every remnant of it—to its very name. We are not without examples of men having submitted to the heavy yoke of despotism, of their having become accustomed to it, nay more, of their having freely accepted it. Religious despotism, monarchical despotism, have more than once obtained the sanction, almost the love, of the population which they governed. But feudal despotism has always been repulsed, always hateful. It tyrannized over the destinies of men, without ruling in their hearts. Perhaps this may be partly accounted for by the fact, that, in religious and monarchical despotism, authority is always exercised by virtue of some belief or opinion common to both ruler and subjects; he is the representative, the minister, of another power superior to all human powers. He speaks or acts in the name of Divinity or of a common feeling, and not in the name of man himself, of man alone. Feudal despotism differed from this; it was the authority of man over man; the domination of the personal, capricious will of an individual. This perhaps is the only tyranny to which man, much to his honor, never will submit. Wherever in a ruler, or master, he sees but the individual man,—the moment that the authority which presses upon him is no more than an individual, a human will, one like his own, he feels mortified and indignant, and struggles against the yoke which he is compelled to bear. Such was the true, the distinctive character of the feudal power, and such was the origin of the hatred which it has never ceased to inspire.

The religious element which was associated with the feudal power was but little calculated to alleviate its yoke…The Church has exercised a very powerful influence in the civilization of Europe, but then it has been by proceeding in a general manner—by changing the general dispositions of mankind. When we enter intimately into the little feudal society, properly so called, we find the influence of the priest between the baron and his serfs to have been very slight. It most frequently happened that he was as rude and nearly as much under control as the serf himself; and therefore not very well fitted, either by his position or talents, to enter into a contest with the lordly baron…

This system, however, seemed naturally to pour into the mind of every possessor of a fief a certain number of ideas and moral sentiments—ideas of duty, sentiments of affection…

The attempt was made to place all these rights under the protection of institutions founded to ensure their respect. Thus the baronial jurisdictions were erected to administer justice between the possessors of fiefs, upon complaints duly laid before their common suzerain. Thus every baron of any consideration collected his vassals in parliament, to debate in common the affairs which required their consent or concurrence. There was, in short, a combination of political, judicial, and military means, which show the attempt to organize the feudal system—to convert the relations between the possessors of fiefs into laws and institutions. But these laws, these institutions, had no stability—no guarantee…

Without doubt the possessors of fiefs were not all equal among themselves. There were some much more powerful than others; and very many sufficiently powerful to oppress the weaker. But there was none, from the king, the first of the proprietors, downward, who was in a condition to impose law upon all the others; in a condition to make himself obeyed. Call to mind that none of the permanent means of power and influence at this time existed—no standing army—no regular taxes—no fixed tribunals. The social authorities—the institutions, had, in a manner, to be new formed every time they were wanted. A tribunal had to be formed for every trial—an army to be formed for every war—a revenue to be formed every time that money was needed. All was occasional—accidental—special; there was no central, permanent, independent means of government. It is evident that in such a system no individual had the power to enforce his will upon others; to compel all to respect and obey the general law. On the other hand, resistance was easy, in proportion as repression was difficult. Shut up in his castle, with but a small number of enemies to cope with, and aware that other vassals in a like situation were ready to join and assist him, the possessor of a fief found but little difficulty in defending himself…

The possessor of a fief, within his domain, was invested with all the rights and privileges of sovereignty; he inherited them with the territory; they were a matter of private property. What are now called public rights were then private rights; what are now called public authorities were then private authorities. When the possessor of a fief, after having exercised sovereign power in his own name, as proprietor over all the population which lived around him, attended an assembly, attended a parliament held by his sovereign—a parliament not in general very numerous, and composed of men of the same grade, or nearly so, as himself—he did not carry with him any notion of a public authority. This idea was in direct contradiction to all about him—to all his notions, to all that he had done within his own domains. All he saw in these assemblies were men invested with the same rights as himself, in the same situation as himself, acting as he had done by virtue of their own personal title…

Force, indeed, was the true and usual guarantee of right under the feudal system, if force can be called a guarantee. Every law continually had recourse to force to make itself respected or acknowledged. No institution succeeded in doing this. This was so perfectly felt that institutions were scarcely ever applied to. If the agency of the baronial courts or parliaments of vassals had been of any importance, we should find them more generally employed than from history they appear to have been. Their rarity proves their insignificance…

Feudalism, as a whole, was truly a confederation. It rested upon the same principles, for example, as those on which is based, in the present day, the federative system of the United States of America. It affected to leave in the hands of each great proprietor all that portion of the government, of sovereignty, which could be exercised there, and to carry to the suzerain, or to the general assembly of barons, the least possible portion of power, and only this in cases of absolute necessity. You will easily conceive the impossibility of establishing a system like this in a world of ignorance, of brute passions, or, in a word, where the moral condition of man was so imperfect as under the feudal system. The very nature of such a government was in opposition to the notions, the habits and manners of the very men to whom it was to be applied. How then can we be astonished at the bad success of this attempt at organization?…

These investigations, I think, bring us to this twofold conclusion:—

  1. Feudalism seems to have exercised a great, and, upon the whole, a salutary influence upon the intellectual development of individuals. It gave birth to elevated ideas and feelings in the mind, to moral wants, to grand developments of character and passion.
  2. With regard to society, it was incapable of establishing either legal order or political guarantee…

Where can we open the history of this period, without discovering a crowd of noble sentiments, of splendid achievements, of beautiful developments of humanity, evidently generated in the bosom of feudal life. Chivalry, which in reality bears scarcely the least resemblance to feudalism, was nevertheless its offspring. It was feudalism which gave birth to that romantic thirst and fondness for all that is noble, generous, and faithful—for that sentiment of honor, which still raises its voice in favor of the system by which it was nursed…

Here we see that the first sparks of European imagination, that the first attempts of poetry, of literature, that the first intellectual gratifications which Europe tasted in emerging from barbarism, sprung up under the protection, under the wings, of feudalism. It was in the baronial hall that they were born, and cherished, and protected. It is to the feudal times that we trace back the earliest literary monuments of England, France, and Germany, the earliest intellectual enjoyments of modern Europe…

The very nature itself of feudality is opposed to order and legality. In the last century, some writers of talent attempted to dress out feudalism as a social system; they endeavored to make it appear a legitimate, well-ordered, progressive state of society, and represented it as a golden age. Ask them, however, where it existed: summon them to assign it a locality, and a time, and they will be found wanting. It is a Utopia without date, a drama, for which we find, in the past, neither theatre nor actors…

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