B Y the feudal system the world was divided into two great classes. The upper class was an aristocracy of soldiers, the lower class comprised all the workers. In both classes there were many grades, but between the richest peasant and the poorest squire there was a great gulf fixed which, in feudal times, it was almost impossible to cross.
Labour was the portion of the lower classes, war was both the profession and the amusement of the upper classes. And if by any chance there was no real war to occupy and amuse them, they played at it and got up mimic battles called tournaments.
These tournaments were generally fought in presence of the king or of some great noble and his ladies. Clad in full armour, as if for actual warfare, but armed with blunted weapons, the combatants rode at each other, each man trying not to kill but to unhorse his opponent. The knight who bore himself best, and brought the greatest number of opponents to the ground, was adjudged the winner, and received a prize.
But often tournaments were of a much more informal character. Indeed, for the youths of those times they took
the place of the Saturday afternoon games of cricket or football of
"A noble train of young men," he says, "take the field after dinner well mounted on horses of the best mettle. The citizens rush out of the gates in shoals, furnished with lances and shields, the younger sort with javelins, pointed, but disarmed of their steel. They ape the feats of war, and act the sham fight, practising the agonistic exercises of that kind. If the king happens to be near the city many courtiers honour them with their presence, together with the juvenile part of the households of the bishops, earls, and barons, such as are not yet dignified with the honour of knighthood, and are desirous of trying their skill. The hope of victory excites to emulation. The generous chargers neigh and champ the bit. At length when the course begins, and the youthful combatants are divided into classes or parties, one body retreats and another pursues, without being able to come up with them, whilst in another quarter the pursuers overtake the foe, unhorse them, and pass them, many a length."
But although tournaments were meant merely as trials of skill, they were often more deadly than real battles, and many a knight, who had passed unscathed through frequent wars, met his death in the lists.
For in the wars of the middle ages the nobles on opposing sides often tried, just as in tournaments, to unhorse and take prisoner their foes rather than slay them. This was not because of any tenderness to the foe, nor because of any desire to save life—for in those days the taking of life sat lightly on a man's conscience; it was merely a matter of business. War was the business of the nobles. It was necessary to make it pay. And although no noble would have stooped to work with his hands he was never averse to making a good bargain. For a living noble a large ransom could always be wrung out of the pockets of his vassals, while for his dead body they would pay nothing.
There was little that was ennobling or fine about these feudal wars. They were not uprisings against tyranny, they were not struggles for liberty, they were not patriotic. They were simply wars of aggression and greed. A man won possession of his land by his sword. And if by the sword he could not keep it, then another took it from him, and the weakest perished. It was the doctrine of the mailed fist.
Every great noble knew that he must be prepared to resist the attacks of his neighbour, for every neighbour was a possible enemy. So every castle became a fortress, built not for pleasure and beauty but for strength. Generally a high position, difficult of access and easy of defence, was chosen as a site. The buildings were defended by stone battlements of enormous strength and thickness, and surrounded by a moat crossed only by a drawbridge which could be raised at pleasure from within. So strong were they that before gunpowder was invented it was almost impossible to take them except by starving the defenders. In feudal wars, therefore, sieges bulk largely.
Many of the abbeys and monasteries, too, were fortresses. Like Durham they were "Half house of God, half castle 'gainst the Scot" or other enemy. The great among the clergy were also great feudal lords, and they were just as eager to increase the domains of their abbeys and monasteries as were the secular lords to add to their manors and estates. We hear of a bishop, who, "not content with the dignity of his office, next anticipated in his mind how he might accomplish great and wonderful things. For he possessed a haughty speaking mouth, with the proudest heart. At last, having collected a band of needy and desperate men, he began his mad career, and became, like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord, forgetting that his office required him to be, with Peter, a fisher of men. Every day he was joined by troops of adherents, among whom he was conspicuous above all by the head and shoulders, and like some mighty commander he inflamed their desires."
For a time he was successful in all his undertakings, and became an object of terror even to the king; but at length he met his match in another bishop, "a man of singular simplicity" who, when tribute was demanded of him, refused, and went forth to do battle against his marauding brother-bishop. "And by God's grace he threw a hatchet which felled his enemy to the earth as he rode in the van."
At another time we hear of an abbot who rode to the siege of Windsor, "where he appeared in arms with some other abbots of England, and had his own standard. He had there also many knights at great expense." But, says his biographer, "we who were cloistered monks considered this course of action to be fraught with danger, fearing lest some future abbot might be compelled to go to war in person."
But although there were many warlike churchmen, there were far more who saw, with grief, the awful devastation made by the constant wars between the nobles. At length, through their influence, the Truce of God was announced. By this Truce fighting was forbidden from Wednesday evening till Monday morning, so that the days upon which Christ suffered, died, and rose again should, at least, be kept free from strife. Besides this, war was forbidden altogether during Lent and Advent, and upon all great feasts and vigils. Thus, if the Truce of God had been fully enforced, only about a quarter of the year remained in which it was lawful to fight. This was, however, far too short a time for the turbulent nobles, and the Truce was many times broken. Yet the Church was so powerful that it often found means to punish those who broke the Truce, and bring them to submission.
That the Church was able to pronounce the Truce of God at all shows how powerful it had become. It was the duty of kings to keep peace within their dominions. But they were unable to do it. So the Church stepped in and performed the duty for them, and the Truce of God remained more or less in force until the thirteenth century. Then the power of the rulers increased, and in time the "King's Peace" took the place of that of the Church.