1902 Encyclopedia > Feudalism, Feudal System

Feudalism, Feudal System

FEUDALISM, FEUDAL SYSTEM. Feodum, feudum, fief, or fee is derived from the German Vieh, cattle (Gothic, faihu; Old High German, fihu ; Old Saxon, fehu ; Anglo-Saxon, feoK) ; in a secondary sense the word came to denote goods, money, property in general. The second syllable has been connected with another root, od, also meaning property,—the whole word denoting property held as a reward, or in consideration of special service. Whether this etymology be correct or not, this is the signification which the word acquired in time. " The word feodum is not found earlier than the close of the 9th century. But neither the etymology of the word nor the development of its several meanings can be regarded as certain."

Feudalism in a broad sense may be taken to mean a social organization based on the ownership of land, and per-sonal relations created by the ownership of land,—a state of things in which public relations are dependent on private relations, where political rights depend on landed rights, and the land is concentrated in the hands of a few. Feudalism in this sense has existed, and perhaps may still exist, in various parts of the world; but the feudal system par excellence is always understood to mean that special form of feudalism which was developed on the soil of Gaul by the conquering Franks. "England had a feudalism of its own, developed simultaneously but independently through the operation of similar causes. Just as the insular feudalism had reached its maturity, the continental feudalism was brought over ready-made by the Normans, _md superimposed on the basis of the domestic product. Thus our social state exhibits elements derived from both forms of feudalism, in conjunction with fossil relics of still earlier institutions. Both varieties of feudalism may be regarded as transition states, intervening between the rough wild liberty of primitive society based on individualism and the carefully organized liberty of modern society based on the effectual supremacy of the law.

Both forms of feudalism had their roots in the organization of primitive Germany. A glance at that system is desirable for a thorough comprehension of our subject; it will help us to realize what feudalism was, if not to discern how it grew up. The leading characteristics of the Teutonic polity were individual liberty and tribal autonomy. Each tribe or canton is theoretically independent, and entitled to manage its own concerns; within the tribe all free heads of houses are politically equal, and entitled to a voice in the affairs of the community. Each free villager has his share of the tribe lands,—his homestead, his propor tion of the arable land, with corresponding rights over the forest and pasture lands. The shares are not necessarily equal, as social distinctions exist, and are fully recognized by the law ; but whether large or small, the shares are held on the like terms of participation in all public duties, chief of which are the obligations of attendance in the communal meetings and in the host. The shares so held "bore among the northern nations the name of Odal or Edhel." Whether any etymological connexion exists between the words odal and alod " may be questioned, but their signification as applied to land is the same : the alod is the hereditary estate derived from primitive occupation, for which the owner owes no service except the personal obligation to appear in the host and in the council." As above intimated, political equality was not held incompatible with social inequality ; the population was divided into three classes, rated at different values in the legal tariff. First came the nobilis, eorl, or cetheling, the man distinguished by ancestral wealth and reputed purity of blood; next ranked the simple freeman, the ingenuus, frilingus, or ceorl; at the bottom of the social scale stood the serf or slave (colonus lazzus, lost, servus. theow). An injury done to an eorl or his property would cost the offender twice or three times as much as the same injury done to a ceorl ; at an equal distance below the ceorl ranks the slave, but the compensation for injury done to him of course goes to his master. The official magistracy {principes) are selected from the ranks of the nobility; very distinguished parentage will at times entitle a mere lad to high office, but this is rare.3 Superior birth gives weight and precedence in the national councils; above all, where a powerful tribe or confederation of tribes think fit to exalt their dignity by conferring regal honours on their chief, care is taken to select the king from the family of noblest birth. But in critical times the instinct of a free people taught that the claims of birth must give place to more weighty considerations : whoever might be allowed to rule in time of peace, on the field of battle only the man of tried ability could take the load. Judicial and political business was transacted in the various national assemblies held at fixed times, " generally at the new or full moon." Local questions and matters of police were determined in the meetings of the mark or township (yicus, dorff); the higher criminal jurisdiction and questions of a political nature were reserved for the malls or gemotes of the hundred, canton, or tribe {gait, pagus, gens); "there was no distinction of place ; all were free, all appeared in arms." The order of business was settled beforehand by the chiefs in com-mittee , a leading elder would open the debate; others followed as the spirit moved them ; the people decided as they thought fit. "Opposition was expressed by loud shouts, assent by the striking of spears, enthusiastic applause by the clash of spear and shield."

The analogy of popular meetings in other ages and countries will warrant the belief that under ordinary circumstances the people would be greatly swayed by the policy of their leaders, but the fact remains that the ultimate appeal was to the people. So with the local judi-cial meetings: the position of the elected princeps is " rather that of president than of judge; " all the free men sit as his assessors. "Doubtless they both declared the law and weighed the evidence." The authority of the princeps was in all cases limited : " De minoribus rebus principes consultant; de majoribus omnes." Even the prerogatives of the monarchical chiefs were subject to strict limitations. Their position was one of high honour but not of irresponsible power. The practical influence of the chief, whether exalted to royal dignity or not, depended largely upon the strength of his comitatus, or household retinue. This institution, " one of the strangest but most lasting features " of early Aryan civilization, was an arrangement " partly private and partly public in its character," which served to furnish " a sort of supplement to an otherwise imperfect organization." The comitatus was a voluntary bond of partial vassalage, intended for mutual protection and support, by which a freeman, even a man of noble birth, attached himself to a more powerful lord (Maford,s princeps). At the table of his lord the free companion, as he was called {comes, gesith), found a comfortable seat; from his lord he received his equipment for war or the chase (heregeatwe, heriot), which reverted to the lord at his death. In return he was bound to espouse the cause of his lord as against all men and by all means. The position of a favoured gesith was one of comfort and social importance ; but involving, as it did, the surrender of all freedom of individual action, it probably entailed a certain diminution of political status. The tie of the comitatus, when coupled with the tenure of land, gives us the germ from which the whole feudal system was developed. It has been commonly held, apparently on the authority of Montesquieu, that the Frankish con-quests in Gaul were effected by independent nobles fighting each with a powerful comitatus at his back; that the lands so conquered were immediately parcelled out by them among their comités upon terms of military service and special fidelity ; and that the Merwing state from the first was built up on the feudal principle of vassalage. The sound view appears to be that—as in Britain, so in Gaul—the Germanic tribes came over as " nations in arms," " with their flocks and their herds, their wives and their little ones that they brought their Germanic social and political organization with them ; and that the Merwing kingdom was mainly constructed on that basis—subject to modifications introduced perforce by the circumstances of the conquest. In Britain it is clear that the primitive political institutions were introduced en bloc, and took root ; of the agrarian settlement effected, evidence is lacking dur-ing the first centuries of the new order. When trustworthy data begin to appear feudalism has already made large inroads on primitive alodialism. In Gaul the chain of evidence is continuous, and it is beyond doubt that under the first dynasty the tenure of land was still mainly alodial ; that all the people were bound to be faithful to the king as a national duty, and not by virtue of special land ten-ure ; that " the gift of an estate by the king involved no defined obligation of service," all the nation being still bound to military service ; that " the only comités were the antrustions, and these few in number and that the supposed larger class of comités, the leudes, were in fact the whole body of the king's good subjects, in Anglo-Saxon phrase, his "hold."

If we pass to the close of the 10th century, and take a survey of the social condition of western Europe, we shall find all the principles of the primitive Germanic society inverted. Political organization from being personal has become territorial ; " the ideas of individual freedom and political right " have " become so much bound up with the relations created by the possession of land as to be actually subservient to them."

Everything belongs either to the king or the lord. Thus in England the national peace is now the king's peace ; the state domain—the folkland—is terra regis. The township has become the lord's manor, the township waste the lord's waste, the township court the lord's court. " Land has become the sacramental tie of all public relations ; the poor man depends on the rich, not as his chosen patron, but as the owner of the land that he cultivates, the lord of the court to which he does suit and service, the leader whom he is bound to follow to the host." This dreary re-sult was not acomplished in a day. But the causes began to operate from a very early period. Even if each free im-migrant received his due family portion of land, a much larger allotment would certainly be assigned to the leader, who might be considered to have contributed most to the success of the undertaking; whole townships in a depend-ent position might thus be established from the very first. The leaders of the migration of course came armed with all the exceptional powers usually conferred on duces in time of war ; the position of the new comers, as military colonists encamped on the lands of others, led to a prolongation of those powers. Strong government was an absolute necessity ; consequently royalty, previously unknown to the Anglo-Saxon tribes, makes its appearance as an immediate consequence of the conquest. Five years after his landing the "heretoga " Hengest is raised to kingship. When the resistance of the natives was crushed, political wars and wars of succession between the invaders themselves ensued, each struggle adding to the private possessions and political influence of the victorious chief. "Everything, in fact, which disturbs the peaceful order of the village system tends to the aggrandizement of the leading family and its chief."4 The new order of things, however, sprang from two great sources, the beneficiary system and the practice of " commendation." " On Gallic soil it was specially fostered by the existence of a subject population, which admitted of any amount of extension in the methods of dependence."5

The system of benefices had its origin partly in grants of land made by kings and principes to their comités, kinsmen, and servants, on terms of special fidelity,—analogous to, if not identical with, the bond of the comitatus,—partly in the surrender of alodial estates made by the owners to lay or ecclesiastical potentates, to be received back, and held under them as bénéficia. By this arrangement the de-pendant bought the protection of a temporal or spiritual patron. Commendation was a similar arrangement, entered into without reference to land ;6 the weaker man placed himself under the personal protection of a superior " without altering his title or divesting himself of his estate : he became a vassal and did homage. The placing of his hands between those of his lord was the typical act by which the connexion was formed. And the oath of fealty was taken at the same time. The union of the beneficiary tie with that of commendation completed the idea of feudal obligation." Both lord and "man" have a hold on the land ; each has his duty to the other,—the one to protect, the other to support. " A third ingredient was supplied by the grants of immunity by which the dwellers on a feudal property were placed under the tribunal of the lord, and the rights which had belonged to the nation or its chosen head were devolved upon the receiver of a fief."7
The system so formed was of mingled origin. The benefi-cium "is partly of Boman partly of German origin ;" commendation might be traced up to the comitatus or the Boman clientship, or possibly to Celtic usages of kindred ancestry.8 All these elements, the benefice proper, the sur-rendered alod, the personal commendation, the private jurisdiction, find their place in English as well as in French history, but the elements were blended in different propor-tion, and under external conditions of a different character. In England the tie of the comitatus played an important part, and became the basis of the later Anglo-Saxon nobility. On the Continent the comitatus was soon lost in " the general mass of vassalage ;"9 on the Continent territorial influences became paramount ; in England personal and legal influences were never extinguished. Both in France and England the process of commendation was fostered by edicts of the central Government, requiring, for purposes of police, that all persons of humble station should place themselves under lords.10 " The process by which the machinery of government became feudalized, though rapid, was gradual." In 843, the date of the great treaty of Verdun, two princes shared the land of France with Charles the Bold, namely, the king of Aquitaine and the duke of Brittany. In 877 Charles was induced to publish a recognition of the hereditary character of benefices. By the end of the century nine-and-twenty provinces, or parts of provinces, had been erected into petty states ; by the year 1000 the list had swelled to fifty-five.

"The weakness of the Karoling kings gave room lor the speedy development of disruptive tendencies in a territory so extensive and so little consolidated. The duchies and counties of the 8th and 9th centuries were still official magistracies, the holders of which discharged the functions of imperial judges or generals. Such officers were of course men whom the kings could trust, in most cases Franks, courtiers or kinsmen, who at an earlier date would have been comités or antrustions, and who were provided for by feudal benefices. The official magistracy had in itself the tendency to become hereditary, and when the benefice was recognized as heritable, the provincial governorship became so too. But the provincial governor hadmany opportunities of improving his position, especially if he could throw himself into the manners and aspirations of the people he ruled. By marriage or inheritance he might accumu-late in his family not only the old alodial estates which, especially on German soil, still continued to subsist, but the traditions and local loyalties which were connected with the possession of them. So in a few years the Frank magistrate could unite in his own person the beneficiary endowment, the imperial deputation, and the headship of the nation over which he presided. And then it was only necessary for the central power to be a little weakened, and the independence of duke or count was limited by his homage and fealty alone,—that is, by obligations that depended on conscience alone for fulfilment. It is in Germany that the disruptive tendency most distinctly takes the political form ; Saxony and Bavaria assert their national independence under Swabian and Saxon dukes who have identified the interests of their subjects with their own. In France, where the ancient tribal divisions had long been obsolete, and where the existence of the alod involved little or no feeling of loyalty, the process was simpler still ; the provincial rulers aimed at practical rather than political sovereignty ; the people were too weak to have any aspirations at all ; the disruption was due more to the abeyance of central attraction than to any centrifugal force existing in the provinces. But the result was the same ; feudal government, a graduated system of jurisdiction based on land tenure, in which every lord judged, taxed, and commanded the class next below him ; in which abject slavery formed the lowest, and irre-sponsible tyranny the highest grade ; in which private war, private coinage, private prisons, took the place of the imperial institutions of government."

This was the social system under which William the Conqueror and his barons had been brought up. English indigenous feudalism had reached its height in 1017, when Cnut "dealfall England into four earldoms—"to himself the West Saxons, to Thorkell the East Anglians, to Eadric the Mercians, and to Eric the Northumbrians." The four jurisdictions are spoken of as co-ordinate. Such a system, with time, might easily have ripened into continental feudalism. But William had no mind to encourage feudalism as a system of government ; on the contrary, he took care to introduce that which England never before had enjoyed, a real central administration, and in that aspect he arrested the growth of feudalism in England. As a system of land tenure it was the only arrangement that he could have con-ceived or understood ; and England was already so exten-sively feudalized in fact that it seemed the merest change of theory to make all subjects tenants, and the king the uni-versal lord and sole alodial owner. The barons were allowed to take up the hereditary jurisdictions already existing on the estates on which they entered ; but the administrative functions of the Anglo-Saxon earls were transferred to the king's sheriffs. The barons resisted, but William's strong arm kept them down; again and again under his two sons the struggle was renewed. " The English, who might never have struggled against native lords, were roused by the fact that their lords were strangers as well as oppressors, and the Norman kings realized the certainty that if they would retain the land they must make common cause with the people." Under Stephen feudalism burst out in all its horrors; fortunately the conflagration burnt itself out. The English rallied again round Henry II.; the great houses of the Conquest successively " suffered forfeiture or extinction;" the other Normans became Englishmen ; and the legal and constitutional reforms of Henry II., with the help of the nation, "put an end to the evil."7

In France the royal authority had been reduced to a shadow. But "the shadow is still the centre round which the complex system, in spite of itself, revolves. It is recognized by that system as its solitary safeguard against disruption, and its witness of national identity; it survives for ages, notwithstanding the attenuation of its vitality, by its incapacity for mischief. In course of time the system itself loses its original energy, and the central force gradually gathers into itself all the members of the nationality in detail, thus concentrating all the powers which in earlier struggles they had won from it, and incorporating in itself those very forces which the feudatories had imposed as limitations on the sovereign power. So its character of feudal suzerainty is exchanged for that of absolute sovereignty. The only checks on the royal power had been the feudatories ; the crown has outlived them, absorbed and assimilated their functions ; but the increase of power is turned, not to the strengthening of the central force, but to the personal interest of its possessor. Actual despotism becomes systematic tyranny, and its logical result is the explosion which is called revolution. The constitutional history of France is thus the summation of the series of feudal development in a logical sequence which is indeed unparalleled in the history of any great state, but which is thoroughly in harmony with the national character, forming it and formed by it."8 (J. H. E.)

Remains of Feudalism in English. Land Laws.

Feudalism, although it has ceased to exist as a system of political and social relations, still survives as the basis of the law relating to land, both in England and Scotland. The most elementary con-ceptions of real property carry us back to the relations of lord and vassal, and cannot be understood without reference to them. Ownership of land, in the full sense of the phrase, is unknown to the law of England. There is no such thing as absolute property in land, says the chief English writer on that subject; a man can only have an estate or interest in land. Every landowner, in the popular sense of the phrase, is, in the eye of the law, a tenant only ; and such is the case with the largest and most unlimited interest known to the law—that of an estate in fee-simple. The owner in fee is the tenant of some one else, who in his turn is the tenant of another, and so on, until the last and only absolute owner is reached, viz., the king, from whom directly or indirectly all lands are held. The spirit of feudalism has, of course, entirely gone out of the system ; only the skeleton is left. Between a tenant in fee-simple and his lord there is no connexion whatever except in legal theory ; in point of fact, it is for the most part unknown who the lord of a particular tenant may be. There are, however, new-contingencies, in which the feudal theory may still yield positive results. Such, for instance, is the case of ESCHJEAT [q.v.), in which, on the failure of heirs of freeholders dying intestate, the land would go to the next lord, and in the absence of a mesne-lord to the-crown. In the case of COPYHOLDS (q.v.), the incidents of feudal tenure survive in a more marked degree than in any other class of estates. They sprang from an inferior kind of feudal holding, and remained subject to the custom of the manor to which they be longed. With the exception of such cases, the feudal obligations and restrictions in which the virtue of the system resided have long disappeared. The establishment of the right of alienation, and at a later time of the testamentary disposition of fee-simple estates, the-acquisition by collusive processes of the right of breaking entail, and lastly, the formal abolition in the reign of Charles II. of the most onerous class of feudal obligations—those relating to chivalry—are the most important steps in this process. These tenures in chivalry, by knight-service, or military tenures, as they were variously called, retained the feudal spirit in its most oppressive form. The rights of wardship and marriage were perhaps the most valuable and the most burdensome of all the rights of the lord. They enabled him to seize the estate of his tenant when he was under age, to exact a fine from him on his coming of age, and to marry him or her to whomsoever he chose. By the 12 Charles II. c. 24 these tenures, with all their oppressive incidents, were abolished and turned into tenures "in free and common socage," i.e., the ordinary non-military tenure, feudal like the other in its origin, but not subject to the obligations imposed by the military character of the tenure by knight's service. The law of real property is, however, still feudal in the sense that its main lines were laid in the times of feudalism. Its most general terms are all feudal in their original meaning. The fee (feudum) is the feudal estate descendible to a man's heirs. The freeholder is the tenant of an estate worthy of a free man, the smallest in quantity being an estate for his own life. To this day a gift to A.B., without other words, means a gift of an estate for life only, because feudal holdings were originally granted to the tenant for his own life, and in return for his own services. And feudal conceptions have overrun and transformed large classes of lights, which in their origin were anterior to feu-dalism. Thus the independent rights of commoners were ignored, and their privileges were treated as favours granted to them by some lord.


Also known as Hubc in Germany; in England and France as mansus, hide, cassata, terra familial, &c.
Stubbs, sup., 53. 3 Tacitus, Germ., ch. 13.
Tacitus, Germ., ch. 7. This, however, would hardly apply to the case of a monarchical tribe.
Tacitus, sup. 7 Stubbs, sup., 25.
Tacitus, sup. 7 Stubbs, sup., 25.
8 Literally "Loaf-giver."—Kemble,
i. 168 ; Stubbs, sup., 24 ; Freeman's Norm. Conquest, i. 92.
"Ainsi chez les Germains il y avoit des vassaux, et non pas des fiefs," Moutesq., Esprit des Lois, xxx. iii.

5 Stubbs, sup., 29 ; Tacitus, sup., ch. 11-13.
9 Tacitus, sup., 13-14. On the whole subject see Kemble's Saxons,

la premiere fois dans line charte de Charles le Gros, en 884." Up to that date beneficium is used apparently to designate the same thing.— Guizot, Civil. France, iv. 41. Cf. Robertson, Scotland under her early Kings, ii. 454.

4 Maine, Village Communities, 143.
5 Stubbs, sup., 252.
6 Stubbs, following Waitz, ii. 262, iv. 210, denies any connexion between the commendation and the beneficiary system of the Frank empire with the primitive comitatus. Roth, Beneficialwesen, 385, regards commendation as " placing a man in the relation of comitatus to his lord ;" and he makes the Frank antrustionship a link between the primitive comitatus and later feudalism.
7 Stubbs, sup., 253. 8 Waitz, iv. 199.
9 "In the Frank empire the beneficiary system is unconnected with the comitatus ; in the English they are in the closest connexion." —Stubbs, 153. In spite of this authority, it seems hard to believe that there was no connexion whatever between the Frank benefices and the comitatus.
10 E.g., Athelstan, Cone. Greatanl.; Schmid, Gesetze, i. 132;
Thorpe, i. 200; Baluze, ii. c. 118, cited by Guizot, Civ. France, iv. 68.

See Guizot, Civilis. France, i. 311, &e. Yet see Montesquieu, Esprit des Lois, xxx. v. xi.
See Stubbs, i. 251, citing Waitz, Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte, ii. 251, &c, " The work of Sohm (Altdeutsche Reichs und Gerichts Verfassung), completes the overthrow of the old theory, by reconstruct-ing, in a very remarkable manner, the old German system in Salian and Merovingian times." See also Robertson's Scotland, ii. 449. For the word "hold," see the proclamation of Henry III. in 1258, Faldera, i. 378.
Stubbs. mp.. 167.

Guizot, Civ. France, ii. 430.
1 See the tables in Guizot, sup., 433, 437.
" Abundant proof of this position will be found in German history. The rise of the successive families of Saxon dukes and the whole history of Bavaria under the Saxon emperors furnish illustrations. The Saxon dukes of Bavaria carry out the Bavarian policy in opposition to their near kinsmen on the imperial throne. The growth of the Swabian Welfs into perfect identification with the Saxons whom they governed affords another striking instance. In a less degree, but still to some extent, this was the case in France also ; but the Gallic populations had lost before the Karoling period most of their national asjrirations; nor did the Frank governors identify themselves at any time with the people. Hence the great difference in social results between French and German feudalism."
Stubbs, sup., 255-6. s Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in anno.
Stubbs, sup., 168. 7 lb., 257. 8 lb., 3-4.
Stubbs, sup., 168. 7 lb., 257. 8 lb., 3-4.

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