Land-Tenure in the Christian Era
FREE Catholic Classes
The way in which land has been held or owned during the nineteen hundred years which have seen in Europe the rise and establishment of the Church is a matter for historical inquiry. Strictly speaking, the way in which such ownership or tenure was not only legally arranged, but ethically regarded, is a matter for historical inquiry also. But the determination from record of motive and of mental attitude is always a disputable thing, whereas the determination of legal definition and of public acts is a matter of documentary and of ascertainable record. During the last two generations certain theories of the State, based, in their turn, upon a vague and general, but appreciable, philosophy, have made of the ethical history of land-tenure or land owning a capital point of discussion, and, to support what was until lately the chief academic view, recorded and ascertainable history was pressed and even warped into the service of theory.
It is the object of this article to set forth what is rigidly ascertainable in the matter, to distinguish it from what is doubtful, and again from what is merely hypothetical.
The modern theory to which allusion is here made is the conception that property in all its forms has no direct relation with personality, is not an extension of nor support of human dignity and the human will (which, strictly, can only attach to persons ), but is a mechanical arrangement or institution deriving its authority from the State, not from the nature of man and not, therefore, from the purpose of his Creator. In this aspect of property many modern apologists apparently divergent, join. Thus, he who will assert that property is necessary in order to give the required impetus to human effort, or that its acquisition is the proper reward of the virtue (as he imagines it to be) of cunning, or that men must endure it as a necessary evil proceeding from the imperfections of their nature is really at one in his general theory of the thing with his apparently irreconcilable opponent who will assert that property is robbery because its existence tends to produce an inequality in material enjoyment. Again the philosopher who analyses what is called economic or Ricardian, rent, and emphasizes its collective quality, however much he may privately support the laws that defend private property, betrays by his whole method of thought his conception that property is adventitious and not native to man. In general, all that wave of non-Christian and (in its acuteness) anti-Christian thought which the nineteenth century has suffered, regards property, among other human establishments, as a thing not having about it that quality which we call sacred. It reposes upon no ultimate moral sanction : it is a function to be expressed in terms of common or private utility. The far-reaching consequences of this philosophy it is not the purpose of these pages to discuss; it has produced, not only the insecurity and the extended poverty, but also the shameless financial spirit of our time ; it has put speculation in the place of production, and removed in so far as it has been powerful the permanent economic bases of society.
The opposite philosophy bears no name; and here we have a phenomenon to be paralleled in many another case. Thus we know the modern attitude which regards matrimony as a contract, but we have no name for the view of that vast majority to which such a conception is repulsive. Again, we can hallmark the modern conception that the State has no authority over the citizen -- the theory called Anarchist -- but we have no name for the public and popular philosophy of the vast majority to which such a doctrine is fundamentally immoral. We must proceed, therefore, without a strict nomenclature, and postulate, what all modern observers will immediately admit, the contrast between those who have with regard to property in all its forms the novel attitude described and those who continue to repose in the older conception of, property as a thing connected with the ultimate ethical sense of man.
For the purposes of this article the interest of that great quarrel lies in this: that the academies and universities (from which centres of intellectualism, of course, all such novelties, long-lived or short-lived, proceed), in their determination to disestablish the sense of property as an absolute thing, have pressed into their service historical evidence, and this is especially the case in regard to property in land. Man is a land animal: without land he cannot live. All that he consumes and every condition of his material being is ultimately referable to land. Nay, the prime condition of all, mere space in which to extend his being, involves the occupation of land. Land, therefore, in all ages has been safeguarded in a peculiar manner from the perils which attach to the abuse, or even the natural process, of private property in any material. And whether those safeguards have been or are, an assertion of the ultimate dominion of the State over land, or institutions to make inheritance in land secure, or to safeguard it against the fluctuation of fortune, or to guarantee a proportion of it for what is essential to the common life of men, or to forbid its acquisition in more than certain areas by one family -- no matter what the guarantees are or have been, they ultimately repose upon the prime and self-evident truth that without land man cannot be. To the truth that land is necessary for the life of man, another truth equally self-evident lends added force, to wit that, whereas all other forms of property can be replaced, land cannot be replaced. A man or a group of men can if the laws be sufficiently bad or sufficiently laxly observed, forestall the market in wheat so as to control the whole supply of wheat for a certain period, but they cannot control it for more than a certain period unless they also control the land, for wheat is perishable. Perishable, also, is every other form of things subject to private property, with the exception of land. Vest all the land in the community in one family or one group of families, make their tenure of it fixed, and it is self-evident that the whole of the community will be utterly dependent upon it or them. In other words, a State must, if it is to remain a State, set up in the case of land guarantees and safeguards against the perils attaching to the institution of property which it need not set up in the case of other forms of property.
We shall, therefore, always find in the historical records of every community, however fixed and absolute its conception of the right of private property in land, some land held in common, some land the property of the State or the municipality, and even that land which is in the hands of individuals or corporations treated legally in a manner different from, stricter than, and contrasting with, the manner in which other forms of property will be treated.
Seizing upon this truth, the school of philosophy alluded to above has attempted to establish a scheme of historical progress wholly hypothetical. It has been pretended that men in their first conception of land thought of it as mere space, heritable by none and open to all: that from this men, organized in strict communities, proceeded to give the community rights over land which it forbade to individuals and to leave the government of the tribe or of the village absolute and continual power -- and power habitually and frequently exercised -- to determine a common tillage and a common pasture. Next (this hypothesis imagined ) the mutations of allotment grew rarer, and the watching of common rights less jealous, until at last were found -- what every man can now see round him in European civilization -- a number of private properties, and side by side with them a certain proportion of communal and public territory. The rights which are exercised over this last or ancient customs which attach to it are called (in the terminology of the academic theory) "survivals from an original communism in land."
Now, before any examination of the true history of land-tenure can be attempted, it is of the first consequence to rid the mind of all such vagaries. There is not a shred of proof in support of such an hypothesis: it is but one out of many which might be framed. It corresponds to the temper, if not of our own day, at any rate of yesterday in the intellectual circle of Europe, it would, were it true, powerfully support one part of their general philosophy and of their general attitude towards human development. But, as there is no proof, the historian must content himself with ignoring it.
Lest this statement should seem too abrupt in the ear of those who are accustomed to hear this hypothesis dogmatically affirmed as historical truth, it is but just to notice in passing the type of arguments upon which it reposes.
Records are produced and contemporary evidence is given of an absolute communism. These records, as they are commonly legendary or at the best extremely vague, are more relied upon than contemporary evidence, which is in this department very rare and never quite above suspicion. Even admitting that legendary evidence or contemporary observation of isolated instances establishes the possibility of men's tolerating a communism in land, it in no way establishes a progress from communism toward private property. To attempt to do so is to argue in a circle. To call communism wherever it appears, even in a very imperfect form, "primitive," and to call the private property where it appears "a later development," is merely to beg the whole question. It is a process against which the student must be warned, because it is, or has been, of the greatest possible popularity in every department of modern intellectualism. It is logically vicious and often demonstrably insincere. There is no single case determinable in history of a regular progression from communism in land to private property. There are cases innumerable of the domain of private property encroaching, as the years pass, upon the domain of public or communal property. And there are numerous, though less numerous, cases of communal property extending after an earlier restriction and growing at the expense of private properties. But to pretend that a regular scheme of development is ascertainable or observable is simply to affirm as an historical truth something for which we find that no historical evidence exists.
With this preface, which, if lengthy, is necessary to any just conception of the business, let us turn to the evidence before us.
The limits of the Christian Era form not only the natural limits for an article in such an encyclopedia as this, but also an excellent historical limit wherein to frame our inquiry. For the birth of Christ was, roughly, contemporaneous with the expansion of the art of writing over the tribal civilizations of Northern and Western Europe, and roughly contemporaneous also with that organization of all the known world, and especially of the ancient Oriental states and cities under the united and simple scheme of Roman rule. In other words, one medium in which ancient records could be preserved upon the one hand and new records established on the other, such a medium, coextensive with the whole of our civilization, is roughly contemporaneous with the beginning of the Christian Era. A generation before that era opened saw Gaul occupied by Roman arms, the last limits reached by the same forces, the last independence of the North African littoral extinguished in Cherchel to the West, in the Valley of the Nile to the East, the generation after the founding of the Catholic Church saw the occupation of Britain at one extreme of the Roman boundaries and the complete absorption of Judea at the other.
We have, therefore, from the first century of the Christian Era, clear records, and upon the basis of such records we can establish our judgment. What we discover is roughly as follows:
The actual tenure of land throughout the whole of this area, to which apply the Roman scheme of law and the Roman appetite for record, regards private property in land as a scheme native and necessary to man. But the absolute quality of this right and the extent of the area over which it is exercised differ very much with the differing sections of the world. The civilization which Rome had superseded in Gaul and was in process of superseding in Britain, the civilization of which she took note, though she did not supersede it, in the Germanies, and which her religion was later to develop in Ireland, was not municipal, but tribal.
It is generally assumed that tribal civilization is necessarily nomadic or at any rate so far nomadic as the chase and continual warfare connote. The assumption has in it something of truth, but in its absolute form may be very much exaggerated. Thus we can be certain that the Gaulish clan called the Senones, in spite of their distant expeditions and the colonies which they threw out to the utmost limits of their world, had a fixed seat upon the Yonne, a seat which still remains in the shape of a cathedral city. We can be equally certain that the Avernians were a population rooted in and conditioned by the old volcanic region of central France. Negative arguments too long to detain us here suffice to prove that the boundaries of the Basque people on the north of the Pyrenees have been much the same throughout the whole period of recorded knowledge and remain within a few miles today what they were during the Civil Wars of the Romans. And in general the nomadic character of a tribal system is indefinitely elastic. The tribe may be wholly nomad or it may have settled, while yet preserving its tribal organization and morals, into a fixed set of agricultural villages. This much is certain: that wherever men build, and do not depend for shelter upon tents, the nomadic character of their communities is qualified.
Now the importance of such a consideration lies in this: that a community wholly nomad is necessarilyquite apart from any fundamental conceptions of property -- communistic in regard to land. Men passing from place to place without a fixed abode can never conceive of land otherwise than as a mere space over which they progress, or a mere area of soil from which they draw the sustenance of themselves and their cattle. But the converse question immediately proposes itself: Where the tribal system was not wholly nomadic, how far did settled habitation accompany the establishment of private property in land? The answer to this question is of capital importance and we shall return to it after dealing with the other half of the Roman scheme.
That other half, the ancient civilization of the Mediterranean, was municipal; that is, the organization of men was in the main an organization of city-states. Agriculture and village settlements existed, the one as a handmaiden to, the other as satellites of, city states which summed up the life of each society. From immemorial time, beyond all record and even beyond the misty horizon of credible legend, men had so lived round the shores of the Mediterranean. Certain picturesque exceptions, numerically insignificant, by their very contrast lent relief to this fundamental character of Mediterranean life. Rare and sparse Semitic tribes wandered in the deserts beyond its south-eastern corner; Berber horsemen harried the steppes which lay behind the cities of Northern Africa. But the whole scheme of life was municipal. In that scheme we discover at the opening of the Christian Era a certain attitude towards the tenure of land neither complicated nor difficult to define. Land was everywhere held as private property : it was bought and sold, the most absolute rights conceivable were granted over it by the Roman State. But this does not mean that the system was simple or that it contained no vestiges of institutions less absolute. Though private property was absolutely established (and that with every appearance of being of immemorial usage), and though it was permitted, in a manner in which most modern states would regard as a peril, to accumulate in vast estates, yet, first, there was always a very large reserve maintained of land belonging to the City and to the imperial Government, and, secondly, not hypothesis, but existing records showed how, in the past, society throughout the Mediterranean, though it could not so much as conceive of communism, had made continual efforts to prevent the growth of a class of free men who should be dispossessed of land. The efforts to attain this ideal, now taking the form of popular outbreaks, now of aristocratic legislation were directed, however, for the most part, towards the proper subdivision of the remaining public lands or to the establishment of a freeholding population upon lands which had been acquired by conquest from an enemy.
The institution of slavery must, as the reader need hardly be reminded, be constantly kept in view in connection with such a scheme of society. The State in the Mediterranean, at the time of which we speak, normally, though not everywhere, consisted of a minority of free men, citizens as we should call them, for whom laboured a majority of men not possessed of civic rights and technically no portion of the State at all. Even under such conditions a class was growing up which, though free, was dispossessed of any property in land. It had appeared very early in the history of Rome. and from the early Roman name for it we draw our modern technical term "the proletariat." But there was a constant instinct in favour of increasing the security of the State by the establishment of such landless men as freeholders and proprietors of the diminishing public lands. This, the object of the Gracchi and the achievement of Julius Caesar, though never finally successful, proved the strong tendency of the Roman State to repose upon citizens who should be owners and freeholders. Whether we inherit that conception from the Roman polity alone, or whether it be something native to the European blood as a whole, this much is certain, that from the Roman Civil Wars to our own day, the idea of a large number of absolute owners of land forming the best and most natural basis for a state, has endured unbroken and may be called normal to the political mind of Europe.
A number of exceptions indefinitely large might be proposed to so simple a scheme. Local custom varied infinitely, and the learned can discover many a vestige of ancient tenure, but, regarding our starting point as a whole -- regarding as a whole, that is, the civilization of the Mediterranean in the first century of our era -- it was a civilization of freeholders, owners who could buy and sell, balanced by the retention of great areas in the hands of the community for distribution, not for common tillage.
To this conception of land tenure (which is almost identical with that of the French Republican tradition which has imposed itself today over the greater part of Western Europe ) there was added in the succeeding seven centuries a slow process of modification which is as difficult to estimate in its nature and origins as it is essential to grasp if one is to understand the problem of land in Europe. The absolute ownership of Roman law and of Roman idea remained unchanged in men's minds, in the terminology of their laws in the phrases of their conversation, and even in the major facts of their society. But there was superimposed upon so simple a conception a novel relationship between the larger and the smaller owners, between the owner and the non-owner who had merely contracted a term of tenure at a rent -- nay, even between the owner and the class that were once his slaves to be bought and sold at will -- which transformed the society of Europe. I say this novel relationship arose most gradually during the first seven centuries; it is widely discoverable in law in the eighth century. The darkness of the ninth century, with its violent Barbarian assault, throws society into a crucible; when the chaotic mass recrystallizes, we find established and henceforward dominating all the Middle Ages, from the later tenth century to modern times, that conception of land tenure to which is roughly, though somewhat inaccurately, given the title Feudalism .
It is at this point of moment to return to the thread of tribal organization in order that we may discover how far this change in the habit of the Roman mind between the absolute ownership of the early Empire and the conception of tenure in the Middle Ages proceeded from that exterior and barbarous tribal system, and how far it proceeded from some organic internal change within the structure of Roman society.
We have seen that the tribal system was not necessarily nomadic and therefore not necessarily communistic in the matter of land. Its nomadic character varied in intensity, from the purely nomadic hordes who seem to have occupied the great plains of the East of Europe to the more or less fixed clans of the Gauls, with their established central cities or strongholds, and their local ascriptions of areas and boundaries.
Upon the tribes to the east of the Roman Empire, we have very little evidence indeed. It is customary to give to this vague group of Barbarians the name Teutonic ; and certainly many of its component tribes (though not all) appear to have certain religious customs, and even the names of certain gods, in common at the opening of the Christian Era. As to the homogeneity of this race, we have evidence quite as contradictory as it is slight. Tacitus, whose main object was the production of a polished literary satire, paints an ideal community, all of one highly distinguishable blood, and exactly possessed of every virtue which he desired, but failed, to find in the Roman State of his time. In his "Germania," however, this writer admits, to strengthen his work, a very considerable number of notes which seem to bear the stamp of actual observation, undertaken, not of course by the writer, but by merchants or soldiers whom he may have interrogated. In the preceding century Julius Caesar, a military writer possessing a very different aim and concerned with accuracy rather than with effect, gives a picture far less favourable. Neither writer, it must be remembered, had any way of appreciating the Germanies and their mixed and floating population within any great distance from the Roman lines. But it is remarkable that both insisted upon the nomadic character of these Barbarians. In Caesar's account, paucity of agriculture and the importance of pasture is emphasized; the land is described as held in common by a body which moves from year to year. Their habitations are but temporary huts. The account of Tacitus does not form a consistent whole, and the most important sentence in it for our purpose is so corrupt in the text that no scholar can vouch for it; but it is generally understood to mean that land (whether pasture or arable we cannot tell) was re-allotted year by year; and it is certain that, as with most Barbarians, very large areas of waste were maintained round the settlement of each tribe. There is practically no other testimony with regard to the tribal system east of the Roman empire. .An enormous mass of guesswork has been erected upon the frail basis of obscure customs and supposed vestiges of the past discoverable centuries later when the Germanies were civilized by the Christian armies, and notably by those of Charlemagne, and when written records could first set down what had hitherto been fluctuating and perhaps recent legend.
The Western tribal system has another and a much greater importance. We know more about it; it formed the civilization of a much larger number of men, and of men far more cultivated and therefore of more influence upon the Roman mind. Of the Gallic system we know virtually nothing. At the British we can do no more than guess, but the survival of what is called "Celtic" habit in Ireland and its recrudescence (which is also a form of survival) in Wales, after the dissolution of Roman rule, instruct us. The characteristic of that civilization seems to have been an intense bond of blood and of common interest between the members of one clan. Perhaps the most startling evidence of this is that, when the Catholic Church, for all its elaborate organization, strictly kept records, and, as it were, necessary machinery, took into its unity the independent Celtic tribes, even such an institution as the episcopate was influenced by the tribal scheme. and the bishop was at first the bishop of the tribe or of its monastic institute not the officer of a municipality, as he was throughout all the rest of the known world.
The proportion of land which could properly be regarded as private property under the tribal system of the West varied indefinitely. Records, of course, only begin to exist with the advent, even after the fail of the Roman Empire, of Roman civilization, letters, religion, and law. Not until modern research was at work could the extent of communal ownership in the tribe be guessed at, for it is an idea alien to the earliest chroniclers who wrote in the Roman tongue and under Roman traditions. Even the Welsh written and oral traditions make it difficult to establish a proportion, and certainly the learned in the fields of Welsh, Scottish, and Irish tribal custom are compelled, for all their learning, to present much more hypothesis than they do direct knowledge.
It is perhaps a just summary that the half of the tribal system which lay exterior to the Roman Empire in the British Isles was conditioned as to its proportion of private property against communal by the geographical circumstances in which it lived. The districts it occupied in Great Britain were mountainous; the mountain pastures, and the mountain waste, and the mountain forests were communal. The narrow alluvial belts along the valley streams were in part communal as pasture, in part held co-operatively for tillage, and in some part -- necessarily in the neighbourhood of habitations -- particular and owned. In Ireland, where wide stretches of plain (though of moist plain, suitable chiefly for pasturage) contrasted with the mountain districts, private property in the full Roman sense was modifiedas it was modified, for that matter, in the small private properties of the Welsh and Scottish valleys -- by a political or ethical character common to the whole tribal system, which was its intensely military character -- a character which it should be remembered, the so-called Celtic tribes of the West poured like an invigorating spiritual stream into the life of the early Middle Ages . This character involved intense loyalties to the clan and to the person of a chief. The conception of an individual owning as against the clan, or defending his particular existence and its economic basis as against his chief, was a conception which, though present, was present as a vice and was odious to the spirit of that society. Ownership there was, for there was theft. and a sense of ownership in land, for there are plenty of examples of men raging against unjust spoliation of that form of property as they would rage against unjust spoliation of any other form of property. But the clan was above all military, and the private property, however absolutely felt or universally recognized, was subject to the spirit of sacrifice which is essential to the military temper.
A general appreciation of the tribal spirit of the West, though historically of the first importance since the Middle Ages were principally inspired by it, does not greatly affect the particular history of land-tenure, because it bears, both numerically and institutionally, so slight a relation to the vast, compact, and stable civilization of Rome, whose internal transformation can alone explain the gradual change from the Roman conception of ownership to the feudal system.
A third province of evidence which would be of the utmost importance to our inquiry is unfortunately lacking and can never be recovered: I mean, the evidence of southern and eastern Britain. There certainly took place an infiltration of tribes, and often perhaps, of single families, from the Germanies into southern and eastern Britain during the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries. There is no manner of doubt that, from a position originally subsidiary and perhaps insignificant under the Roman Empire, the German-speaking population of southern and eastern Britain increased enormously up to the advent of St. Augustine, just before the dawn of the seventh century. There is again no manner of doubt that the attacks of pirates, who were probably also mainly speakers of Teutonic dialects, from being harassing in the third and menacing in the fourth, had become a scourge in the fifth century; and the weight of legend, though it is only legend, is too strong to be ignored where it describes their progress in the sixth. A certain number of Roman towns in Britain were actually taken by assault, some perhaps by the pirates alone, some by a combination of these with other Barbarians such as the Celtic Northerners beyond the Roman Wall. At any rate, although there is no direct record, and even in the way of myth only very misleading traditions, upon the worst 150 years of the business, and though southern and eastern Britain disappears from history during that period, yet we may confidently say that the society resulting from the pirate invasions the resistance of the Roman cities, and the independent British tribes which joined in the fray, was a society exhibiting, after its conversion, a greater number of tribal features than that of any other province formerly imperial.
If we had any evidence upon the state of society thus in process of formation, we might establish an interesting body of facts, and it might even appear that what is called "Teutonic" custom was of a sort calculated to affect Roman society in the direction of feudalism. Unfortunately, we possess no such evidence. The first clear description of the mixed society produced by the pirate invasions and the spread of German dialects comes too late for our purpose, and there remains for the historian nothing but the very unprofitable business of guesswork as to what the tribal organization may possibly have been in the homes of the pirates before they took the sea, or among the half-independent British tribes surrounding the Roman societies in the decline of the Roman power. By the time clear records are developed under the influence of the Church, nothing in the way of true tribal organization remains. The Roman municipalities have survived the shock, and are all, with the exception of three, upon their feet. The agricultural arrangements of the village have certain local characteristics which appear to differentiate it from its counterpart in Gaul but these differences are slight and unimportant, and with the exception of the increasing change in the popular language (the German elements of which spread further and further), of a considerable admixture of new blood (how much we cannot tell), of a necessary and obvious loosening of the bonds of society, and of an absence of such military organization as Gaul still preserved, the Roman province of Britain is, at the close of the eighth century, once more a portion of the Roman world. We cannot judge from its then social constitution what former tribal influences may have contributed to the moulding of the State.
Yet another source for the transformation in land tenure which Roman society suffered has been suggested. Some have thought that two institutions present in the Roman Empire in the time of its vigour the one military and early discovered especially in the West, the other civil and developed later in the East under Byzantine law -- were the origins of feudalism.
The first of these was the military tenure granted by the Crown to veterans upon the frontiers on condition of military service to be rendered when called for. This case of tenure was exceptional so far as the number of individuals was concerned, but had a wide extension upon the long frontiers of the Empire. It bears a strong resemblance, indeed, to one characteristic of later feudalism, to wit, the connection between tenure and military service. But it is quite impossible to establish a link between this exceptional, artificial, and occasional system and that whole state of mind which produced (as we shall see later) the feudal system. There is no trace of the one growing out of the other: one does not find an inherited tenure which began under this Roman military experiment and ended as a true feudal estate. The resemblance between the two is mechanical rather than organic, and the analogy is verbal. On examination we find that there is no affiliation between the spirit of the one and the spirit of the other.
The second institution was the tenure called emphyteusis , under which land, the domain of the Crown (and other land as well, but especially land under the domain of the Crown), was granted, not on absolute ownership, but in tenancy for certain fixed dues, and once so granted was granted permanently. This system does indeed nearly resemble in form the beneficium , which overlapped with it, but grew later and flourished more vigorously in the West. It lacks, however, the prime character of the beneficium , to wit, the moral bond between the grantor and the grantee, the conception of a personal favour done by the grantor who expects from the grantee personal loyalty. Now this moral factor was the life of the feudal growth, and though the forms of the grant in the West were undoubtedly influenced by the strict law of the Empire, there is no organic relation discoverable in history between one and the other. A more direct, a more reasonable, and a more demonstrable process produced out of the material of Roman society, and from within its own tradition, the structure of tenure later known as feudalism. For, while various forms of settled tenure which had for their characteristic the holding of land from another, in contradistinction to the fundamental and indestructible idea of ownership, were thus arising in the settled civilization still subject to centralized Roman government and chiefly residing in the eastern portion of Christendom, in the western portion the ideas of the time were expressing themselves in another fashion.
The conception of tenure, or holding of another permanently, as distinguished from ownership (an idea as fundamental and as indestructible in the West as in the East), was developing in Gaul through the merging of two quite distinct currents of custom. To comprehend these two currents the reader must first postulate as the basis of all Roman society at the close of the Roman Empire a number of great estates varying in size from many hundreds to many thousands of acres, each in the absolute possession of an owner who tilled his land with slave labour. These estates were the units of society, they were the parishes into which ecclesiastical organization was divided, the villae into which agricultural industry was divided. One family might possess many; no wealthy or important family possessed less than one. It is their grouping which we shall see building up the feudal system; it is their owners whose descendants become the nobility of Europe in the Middle Ages, their chaplains who become the parish priests, their slaves who become the peasantry. This conception once seized, we can understand the nature of the two currents whose fusion resulted in the full production of feudalism, a process we are now about to examine. The two streams were as follows:
(1) The great landowners whom the Roman Empire, while it was still governed strictly from one centre, had left absolute proprietors of their estates, began to arrange themselves in a hierarchy of greater and lesser men: the lesser related to the greater by an understanding which later became a contract, and which carried with it a conception of dependence.
(2) The great officers of state being identical in so many cases with the owners of large landed estates the two ideas of office and of ownership associated themselves in men's minds, and, while political power became hereditary as the descent of land was hereditary, it became natural, conversely, to think of ownership, however fixed and continuous, as something held from above, since political power, which was at last inseparably associated with ownership must of its nature be held from the supreme authority of the State.
We will examine each of these developments separately. Even before the fall of the Empire and the establishment of local generals of armies (some Barbarian, some Roman. and all, soon, a mixture of the two), the tendency of the smaller man to put himself under the protection of the greater man had appeared. It was the decay in public authority which produced this tendency. Property was the prime institution that survived, it had a sanction in the popular mind which survived the power of punishment vested in the laws and police of the Roman State. A man was powerful in proportion to the number of estates he owned in a district; he could exercise that power in a number of ways; he could see to it that religious endowments should go to the person or persons he wished, he could found monasteries, he could influence by the weight of his presence the course of justice ; he could advance money where money stood between an individual and punishment, he could be responsible for taxes. The more estates a man owned in a particular district, the more -- as public authority declined, and sense of the sanctity of property remained -- did such a man tend to become the real head of the district, in contradistinction to the weakening authority of political machinery. Again, the anarchic character which war was taking on -- the irresponsible raids of small but fierce groups of Barbarians -- created dangers against which a man best secured himself by establishing a close set of mutual duties between himself and some wealthier man of the neighbourhood. The tendency was opposed to Roman tradition, and, since it worked outside the framework of Roman law. was obviously inimical to the imperial conception, but that conception weakened from generation to generation, and as early as the fifth century one finds this sort of "recommendation" an established custom vigorous and vital, which the dead framework of the imperial law cannot break. When the chieftains of the small invading tribes, principally German, and the generals of armies had seized upon the machinery of government, had become the masters of the tax-collecting authorities, resided in the Roman palace of the capital cities, and came to be called local "kings", all attempt to check this natural tendency ceased.
Under the Merovingian Dynasty. which saw, a continued decline of central authority, the institution flourished exceedingly. It became normal and almost universal for the small man with one or two estates to be attached, he and his heirs, in a permanent fashion to the larger local man with many estates. This new link between the greater and the lesser landowners of a district bore various names. Sometimes the lesser man was said to be "in feu" to the greater; the Latin word fides , i.e., "the bond of honour ", was a technical word employed. Sometimes the old Latin term "patronage" was used to signify the same thing. In the sixth century men were already taking it for granted; in the seventh, though it had not yet appeared in written law, it had appeared in many a written document, and was almost universal. Towards the end of the seventh century and the beginning of the eighth a special political movement was apparent in society which not only accepted and sanctioned such arrangements, but actively and consciously favoured them. The great officers of the Crown, and notably their chief, the mayor of the palace, had become stronger than the Crown itself. Now these great officers were also the great landowners who formed the head of this hierarchy of innumerable individual contracts or understandings or customary relationships. And as these mayors of the palace came nearer and nearer to grasping the supreme power of the State, the chief force behind them was the crowd of men who owed to them and the great officers. their followers, this "fidelity".
The eighth century witnessed a political revolution which finally confirmed and established, brought into the region of positive law, and launched on its career through the Middle Ages, the full institution of "patronage", or, as it was now called, of "seniority". The link of "fidelity" had become the nexus which bound the State together, and feudalism henceforward was the characteristic of society.
This political revolution consisted in the advent to supreme power of the old Roman family of Ferreolus. It was one of the great senatorial families of Roman Gaul established in the district of Narbonne in the fifth century. After many adventures, during which the head of the family at one moment migrated into the German-speaking limits of Gaul, and during which more than one German marriage brought into the old paternal Gallo-Roman stock a mixture of blood on the female side, the descendants of the Ferreoli occupied the highest office of state in the eastern portion of the monarchy. A certain Pepin (the Gallic name is characteristic) was mayor of the palace -- head, that is, of the landed hierarchy and chief officer of state in the eastern half -- when, at the end of a series of confused quarrels between the great nobles, he conquered, at the battle of Testry (687), his rival, the other mayor of the palace, the chief officer of the western half of the monarchy. No racial division is apparent in this confused business, but what is now the wealthiest landed family in all Gaul becomes, under Pepin, the head of all Gaulthe master of the whole State. Pepins son Charles broke the invasion of the Saracens, his grandson, another Pepin, was at last crowned king of the whole French State in 757, and it may be said that from that moment the new system of tenure has definitely replaced the old social organization of Rome. For, though Pepin's son Charlemagne recovered, and in a sense made perpetual, the idea of European unity which is summed up in the word empire , yet he never permitted the centralized law, which (so far as was possible in so barbaric a society ) he established, to interfere with the natural growth of feudalism. On the contrary, he fostered it. And in the capitularies of Charlemagne the institution takes on the force of law. The monarch orders them to be observed, and himself concludes arrangements upon the basis of senioritas or fidelitas at the very moment when he is attempting to revive the old, impersonal and anti-feudal idea of the Empire.
Such was the gradual growth of feudal tenure from below. A brief outline must now be given of the second branch of its development, its growth from above.
The Roman Caesar in the later times of the Empire entrusted the government of various districts to officials whose military titles sufficiently indicate their origin. A dux (the word we translate by "duke" or leader, was established over one district, a comes (the word we translate by "count"), or companion of the sovereign, over another. And in the nature of things these offices of state were revokable and dependent upon the will of Government. But the process of society we have just described associated such offices, even towards the end of the Empire, with large estates in land. When the Empire had broken down, and the chieftains of tribes or the generals of armies had seized upon the powers of local government, this association of political power with landed estate tended to become universal; and the confusion of ideas was further aided by the institution of the beneficium . As is still the case in all modern European states with the exception of England, very large tracts of each province were public land. Nor did these tracts necessarily diminish with alienation, sale etc., for they were recruited by conquest, confiscation, lapse for lack of heirs, and merger. Under the institution of the beneficium , a great landowner, desiring to attach to himself the services of some important person or institution, gave over to such person or institution the usufruct of a certain part of his land on condition of receiving in return services and fidelity, or, as it was later called, "vassalage". After the breakdown of the Empire, the declining local monarchies -- and notably the Frankish monarchies of the North -- began to "grant such beneficia on a large scale, and by the time of Charlemagne they made inroads into the greater part of the public domain. For generations it was understood that a beneficium was a purely personal contract entered into under the strict conceptions of the Roman law, and, if no term were mentioned, terminable at the latest at the death of the grantor.
It is self-evident, however, that, under the pressure of institutions round it, the beneficium would tend to become feudal and hereditary like the rest; and so it did. We have, then, under the Merovingian Kings of France, thoroughly established in custom, and, under the Carlovingian Dynasty, openly apparent in law, a multitude of royal acts which -- whether they are a grant to a faithful servant or the appointment of a trusted man to an office, especially to a local command, or the nomination of one to such a position who is too strong to be refused -- all become daily less and less the voluntary and revokable act of an absolute government, more and more the recognition of an established landed system.
Out of these two currents -- the growth of feudalism from below by voluntary interdependence of smaller owners and greater, the growth of feudalism from above by the increasing strong analogy which makes of office and of royal grant a permanent tenure in duty and in honour -- the whole feudal system had been welded when the storm of the ninth century broke upon Christendom.
In that storm our civilization nearly disappeared. Its symbol, the imperial name, wholly disappeared; for the establishment of the German Empire in the tenth century and its 300 years' quarrel with Italy, was not universal: it left on one side Gaul, Britain, and the re-conquest of Spain, which was characteristically national, and as characteristically not a European affair. It suffered the fate of all mere names.
The violent Barbaric assault upon Christendom which followed the Carlovingian period was calculated to make of the feudal conception a stronger thing than ever. A hierarchy of a military type, based upon local economic power, was absolutely necessary at such a time.
Perhaps the best example of the way in which tenure had come
More Volume: L 573
Click/Touch the sub-volume below to view encyclopedia articles within the sub-volume.
by Catholic Online
- Vatican draws attention to sacrifice of seafarers, requests prayers
- Prayer Requests Live for Monday, July 15th 2019 HD Video
- St. Carmen: Saint of the Day for Tuesday, July 16, 2019
- Amid political uncertainty, Haitian bishops announce year of prayer
- Daily Reading for Thursday, July 18th, 2019 HD Video
- Daily Readings for Tuesday, July 16, 2019
- San Francisco auxiliary bishop, seminary rector, dies age 70
- Daily Reading for Wednesday, July 17th, 2019 HD
- Daily Reading for Tuesday, July 16th, 2019 HD
- Daily Reading for Monday, July 15th, 2019 HD
- Prayer Requests Live for Friday, July 12th 2019 HD
Learn about Catholic world
Inform - Inspire - Ignite
Catholic Online Saints
Your saints explained
Catholic Online Prayers
Prayers for every need
Catholic Online Bible
Complete bible online
Catholic Online News
Your news Catholic eye
Today's bible reading
Products and services we offer
Catholic Online Shopping
Catholic medals, gifts & books
Advertise on Catholic Online
Your ads on catholic.org
Catholic Online Email
Email with Catholic feel
Learn the Catholic way
Catholic Online School
Free Catholic education for all
K-12 & Adult Education Classes
Support Free Education
Tax deductible support Free education
Copyright 2019 Catholic Online. All materials contained on this site, whether written, audible or visual are the exclusive property of Catholic Online and are protected under U.S. and International copyright laws, © Copyright 2019 Catholic Online. Any unauthorized use, without prior written consent of Catholic Online is strictly forbidden and prohibited.
Catholic Online is a Project of Your Catholic Voice Foundation, a Not-for-Profit Corporation. Your Catholic Voice Foundation has been granted a recognition of tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Federal Tax Identification Number: 81-0596847. Your gift is tax-deductible as allowed by law.