Story of Europe - H. E. Marshall

The Feudal System

When in 911 the pirate king, Rollo the Ganger, was transformed into Robert, Duke of Normandy (see Chapter XII) he did homage  to his superior, Charles the Simple. Although, as you remember, he refused to kiss the king's feet, in all probability he, or one of his followers for him, knelt before the king, put his hands in these of the king, and vowed to be his man. This is the original meaning of homage, the word being derived from home, the French for man. We have no record of the exact ceremony performed by Rollo. But we know that some such ceremony must have taken place, for the feudal system was already in force in France. By this ceremony Rollo was installed as Duke of Normandy; but the land did not become his in absolute possession. It still belonged, in theory at least, to the king, who bestowed it on Rollo as a fief, and in accepting this fief Rollo became the vassal  or servant of the king (vassalis).

To trace the rise of feudalism, or to explain all its various phases and modifications in various countries, would be impossible in a short space. Broadly, feudalism was the name given to a peculiar form of government founded on the holding of land by military service. It was a result of the wild confusion into which all the countries of western Europe were thrown upon the break-up of the Carolingian Empire (see Chapter X), and was developed partly from old Roman custom, partly from new barbarian custom.

The root idea was that all the land in a country belonged to the king, who held it from God alone; but no one man, king although he might be, could farm the land of a whole country. Therefore he gave it to whomsoever he would; but he did not give it outright, nor did he give it without recompense. The king as overlord merely gave to any man he wished to reward the use of the land during his lifetime. In return the subject promised to be faithful to his king, and to help him in his wars. This was done with solemn ceremony. Kneeling before the king the subject placed his hands within those of the king and vowed to be his man. The king then kissed and raised him to his feet, and the act of homage was complete.

Next, with his hand upon some holy relic, or upon the Gospels, the vassal took the oath of fealty, and swore to be true to his overlord. This being done, the king gave his vassal a sod of earth and the branch of a tree as a sign that he was now in possession of the land for which he had done homage. It was only the great vassals or vassals-in-chief who received their land directly from the king. They, in their turn, divided their land, and granted it in fiefs to lesser lords, who did homage not to the king but to them. They again divided their land among still lesser lords. And so it went on, from highest to lowest, from the king who, in theory, possessed all the land down to the poor knight who did homage to some petty lord for a few acres.

Besides undertaking to furnish him with a certain number of soldiers in time of war, the vassal had other obligations towards his lord. The chief of these were the aids. These aids were sums of money which the overlord had the right to ask on four occasions: namely, upon the knighting of his eldest son, upon the marriage of his eldest daughter, upon his departure for a Crusade, and for his own ransom, should he happen to be taken prisoner in battle. The vassal was bound to come when called upon to help his lord with advice.

In theory a vassal was put in possession of a fief for his lifetime only; but, as a matter of fact, fiefs descended from father to son. For when a holder died his eldest son did homage for the fief and swore fealty to his overlord as his father had done before him. If, however, a holder died without direct heirs, then the fief returned into the possession of the overlord. Or should a vassal fail in his duty, or prove a traitor to his overlord, then the fief was forfeited, and the overlord took possession of it again—if he could.

The chief return which the overlord gave to his vassal for the military help and aids promised by his vassal was protection. And the rapid growth of the feudal system is due greatly to the need of this protection. In the lawless times which followed upon the break-up of Charlemagne's Empire the small landowners were at the mercy of the great. The land was full of marauding barons, and might was right. If a man was not strong enough to defend his life or his goods with his sword, another took it. It was easy enough for the baron, with twenty retainers at his back, to swoop down upon the poor knight who had but five, and having slain him, to take possession of all his goods and lands. So rather than lose both land and life, many of the lesser nobles who had held their lands in the old free way were glad to give them up to some powerful lord, and receive them again as fiefs together with the assurance of protection.

In theory the feudal system was an excellent way of maintaining an army for the benefit of the state with little expense to the state. If the king wished to go to war (and in those days he nearly always wished to go to war against one or other enemy) he called upon his great vassals to supply him with men. They called upon their vassals, they, in turn, upon theirs, and so on down the long line, until the lowest rank was reached, and a goodly company gathered to the royal standard.

In practice the results were by no means so good. In the first place, only the vassals-in-chief paid homage direct to the king. All other vassals paid homage and swore fealty to their own particular lord, duke, or count. The king was far off, he was but a name to many of his so-called subjects. The count or duke was near, he lived among his vassals; they knew him and, in fear or affection, followed him to battle wherever he led them, even against the king himself. In practice thus the great vassals were often stronger than the king, and when they rebelled against his authority he found it hard, or even impossible, to subdue them.

William the Conqueror and the Feudal System

The feudal system made a strong central government impossible, and the lands in which it flourished most became little more than a collection of independent and tumultuous states, each one of which was a miniature kingdom in itself.

In England this state of things was to a great extent avoided by the wisdom of William the Conqueror. He knew that as Duke of Normandy he was as strong, or stronger, in France than the king he owned as overlord. He determined that in England no vassal should be as strong as he. So in rewarding his Norman vassals by giving them English land, he was careful not to give any one of them a large tract in one place. If a vassal's deserts demanded a great reward he received not one large estate but several small ones scattered widely over the country. This made it difficult for a vassal to gather all his men-at-arms together without the fact coming to the king's knowledge. Besides this, William made all  vassals swear fealty to himself direct, whether they received their land as vassals-in-chief or held it merely as sub-vassals from some duke or count.

Within his fief every feudal lord was absolute. He had the power of life and of death over his vassals. He was ruler and judge. He made war where and when he chose. For in those days private war was a common right. The pettiest baron might make war on his neighbour if he felt disposed, the only condition being that he must declare war with due ceremony before beginning to fight. This was done by sending a gage, generally a glove, to the enemy.

As war was a common right, every man rich enough not to require to work with his hands was a soldier. No other profession except that of a priest was open to a gentleman. Dignity did not allow the great lords to farm their own lands, and a life of idleness and a love of adventure drove them forth to fight on all and every occasion. So it came about that all the upper classes from the king to the poorest knight were soldiers. They were all gentlemen and idlers save for their profession as soldiers.

Beneath them, and sharply cut off from them, came the workers. They were divided into several classes, the lowest of which were villains and slaves. They were part and parcel with the land. When a fief passed from one overlord to another they passed with it. In life and in death they were tied to the land. They were as much their lord's property as his cattle, and could neither marry nor take any other great step in life without his permission.

Yet the villain was not a slave. He could not leave the land, it is true, but neither could his overlord take from him the small portion of land which had been granted to him, so long as he paid his dues. These dues generally consisted of a certain number of days' labour each year, and a certain proportion of his harvest and cattle. The slave, on the other hand, had no rights. He was absolutely in the hands of his overlord. He could be sold or even slain if his master so pleased.