Gateway to the Classics: The Story of the Middle Ages by Samuel B. Harding
The Story of the Middle Ages by  Samuel B. Harding

The Growth of Feudalism

U PON the death of Charlemagne, his Empire passed to his son Louis. This ruler is sometimes called "Louis the Pious," because he was so friendly to the Church; and sometimes "Louis the Good-natured," because he was so easy-going and allowed himself to be guided by his wife and his favorites.

Under his rule the Empire lost much of the strength that it had possessed under Charlemagne; and after Louis's death, it was still further weakened. His sons had begun fighting for the kingdom even while their father lived. After his death they fought a great battle in which troops of all the Frankish lands took part. The old writers describe this as a terrible struggle,—more terrible than any since Attila and his Huns were driven back by the Romans and the Goths, or the Moors were defeated by Charles Martel. Those battles had been fought by the Christians against peoples who were not Christians; but now Christians fought against Christians, Franks against Franks. "May the day of that battle be accursed!" wrote a writer who himself took part in the struggle. "May it never more be counted among the days of the year, but be wiped out from all remembrance! May it lack the light of the sun, and have neither dawning nor twilight! May that night also be accursed; that terrible night in which so many brave and skillful warriors met their deaths! Never was there a worse slaughter! Men fell in lakes of blood; and the garments of the dead whitened the whole field."

As a result of this battle, the three sons of Louis agreed to divide the kingdom among them. Charles, the youngest son, got the western part, and this in course of time grew into the kingdom of France. Ludwig, the second son, got the land lying east and north of the Rhine River and Alps Mountains; and this region in time became the kingdom of Germany. Lothair, the eldest son, got Italy, and a long narrow strip which lay between Charles's portion on the West and Ludwig's portion on the East; and with it he received the title of Emperor. This "middle strip" was long and awkwardly shaped, and there was so little to bind the people together that it never grew into a permanent kingdom. Before many years had gone by, it passed into the hands of the rulers of France and Germany, and the only thing that remained to show its former rule was the name "Lotharingia" or "Lorraine," which is still given to the northern part of it.

This division of the kingdom tended, of course, to make the Frankish power weaker. Other things, too, contributed to this end. The Carolingian princes (as the descendants of Charles are called) were not nearly as strong rulers as their grandfather had been; new enemies, moreover, had now arisen to trouble the land, and make the task of governing it more difficult. The Moors of Spain and Africa were going far into the heart of France and Italy in their search for plunder and slaves. On the North and West fleets of Viking ships, laden with fierce Northmen from Denmark and Norway, were landing upon the coast, or ascending in their light vessels far up the rivers, plundering, killing, and burning. And from the East the Hungarians—a new race, of close kin to the old Huns—were now advancing year after year up the Danube valley, into Germany, into Italy, into France, carrying everywhere terror and dismay.

Since the kings of this period were too weak to protect the land against attack, the people were obliged to look after their own defence. The result was that rich and powerful landowners began to build great gloomy towers and castles as a protection against these raids. In course of time every lofty hill-top, every cliff, every island in the great rivers, came to have a castle, where the lord and his followers might find protection against their enemies. There was now no power in the state either to protect or to punish its subjects; so these lords not only used their castles as a defence against the Hungarians and other enemies, but often themselves oppressed their neighbors. From their strongholds they would sally forth to misuse the peasants of the country around, or to plunder merchants travelling from town to town. Everything was fallen into confusion; and it seemed as if the time told of in the Bible, when "every man did that which seemed good in his own eyes," had again come upon earth.

There seemed to be only one remedy against these evils for the ordinary freeman. This was to give up his independence, and get the lord of some castle to agree to protect him against all other enemies. That, in fact, is just what we find going on in this period. Men everywhere were giving up their independence, and becoming the dependents  of some great man who took them under his protection.

When a freeman wished to "commend himself," as it was called, to the protection of a lord, he went down on his knees before him, put his hands between the hands of the lord, and swore to be "his man"—that is, to serve him. Then the lord raised his "vassal," as the man was thenceforth called, and gave him the kiss of peace.

This was called "doing homage" to the lord. Next the vassal swore to be faithful to his lord in all things; this was the "oath of fealty." If the man had land in his own right, he usually gave it up to the lord, and the lord then gave him back the use  of it. If he had no land before, the lord granted him the use of some of his own land; and a lance, or a twig, was given him at the time he did homage, in sign of this. Thenceforth the lord was the real owner of the land, but the vassal had the use of it till his death. When he died, his son would do homage and swear fealty to the lord, and then he would be given the land his father held. Such a piece of land was called a "benefice" or a "fief," and the name which is given to the whole system was "feudalism," or the "feudal system."

As a result of this system the ordinary freemen gained the protection which they so much needed and the state could no longer furnish. Thenceforth they had a place of refuge, in the lord's castle, to which they could flee when robber bands appeared; and they also had a powerful protector to defend them against the attacks of other lords.

"But," you may ask, "what good was all this to the lord of the castle? Why was he willing to admit these men to become his vassals, and even grant them parts of his own lands as benefices?" That is a question which is easily answered. The lord needed men  to help him guard his castle, and fight his battles; and that was what the vassals supplied. Every year they might be called upon to serve their lord as armored knights for forty days in the field, besides rendering him other services. In this way the lord obtained military followers, who were closely bound to him by ties of homage and fealty; and the more vassals he had, the more powerful he became.

The lords themselves in turn often became the vassals of some greater lord above them, and bound themselves to bring all of their  followers to serve him, when called upon to do so. In the completed system, the king of the land stood at the head; then under him were his  vassals, and under them were their  vassals,—and so on until we come down to the peasants. They were not looked upon as worthy to be the vassals  of anybody; they were called "serfs" or "villains," and had to till the soil, and raise the food which supported all the classes above them.

From what you have been told you might think that feudalism was an organization only for fighting; but it was something more than this. It came to be an organization for governing the land as well. The power of the kings became so weak that the feudal nobles were able finally to take into their own hands most things that the head of the state ought to have done. In this way it came about that the feudal lords had the right to make war, coin money, make laws, and hold courts in their fiefs. Sometimes they had their own gallows on which to hang offenders. The power that ought to have been in the hands of the head of the state was thus split up into many bits, and each of these great lords had part of it.

The growth of the feudal system was going on everywhere in Western Europe from about the eighth to the eleventh centuries. It grew slowly, but it grew surely; for in the weakened condition of the state it was the form of organization that best met the needs of the people. So everywhere,—in Spain, in France, in England, in Germany, and in Italy—we find the feudal castles arising; and men everywhere gave up their free land, received it back as fiefs, and became the vassals of lords above them.

The existence of feudalism is one of the most important facts about the Middle Ages. It is this which makes the government of that period so different from the governments of Greece and Rome, and also from the governments of to-day. Feudalism, moreover, led to other important changes. In the Church it made the abbots and bishops the vassals of the kings and nobles for the land which the Church held; and since vassals owed military service, the bishops and abbots often became more like feudal warriors than mild and holy servants of Christ. Because the chief business of vassals and lords was fighting, much attention was paid to arms and armor, and to training for war. In this way arose the wonderful coats of mail and suits of armor of the Middle Ages; in this way also arose the long training which one had to go through to become a knight, and the exciting "tournaments" in which the knights tried their skill against one another.

In another chapter is an account of The Life of the Castle; we tell you of these things here only that you may see how truly we may say of this period, that it was indeed the Feudal Age, as it is sometimes called. Especially is this true of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. It is in those centuries preeminently that we find feudalism grown into a complete system, and ruling the whole life of the lands which the German conquerors had won from the Roman Empire.

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