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SKETCH OF THE FEUDAL SYSTEM.
Chivalry and Feudalism.
CHIVALRY and its military duties originated in the institution of aristocracy, and exhibited during the middle ages, those social and political relations of the nobility, which, in a greater or smaller extent, distinguished the privileged classes of all Germanic nations.
It is undoubted that these privileged classes existed among the Germans before the invasion of the Roman empire. They are mentioned by Tacitus in various places, under the designation of "nobiles," or "principes," in contradistinction to the plebeian orders. Later records, legal and historical, of German tribes settled in the provinces of the western empire, treat likewise of aristocracy as a class distinct from that of mere freemen. In the ancient laws, the weregild, or fine paid by the murderer to the relations of the slain, was rated higher, if the victim was of noble origin. In historical works, there are also allusions to noble families that belonged to various German tribes. Among the Goths are noticed the Amali and the Balti; among the Franks, the Merovingians; among the Lombards, the Gungici; among the Bavarians, the Agilolfingi, &c. In the Edda, (the mythological traditions of the Scandinavians) a line of demarcation is drawn between the noble and the ignoble. We thus obtain from various independent testimonies, the convincing proof, that the institution of nobility was inherent in the national economy of the early Germans.
Nobility in all instances, is invested with characteristic prerogative. What was the nature of those prerogatives among the Germans cannot be clearly determined; but we learn from a statement of Tacitus, that the chieftains of their tribes were elected from the higher ranks. Thus, the Cherusci petitioned the emperor Claudius to restore to them, as their leader, the last survivor of their nobles. This application suggests, that the high-born were considered as the kindred and peers of royalty, and exercised greater authority than the mere freemen.
Sacerdotal Functions of the Nobility.
The nobles combined with their duties, the functions of priests, to which, in some instances, judicial power was also attached, as we are led to infer from Scandinavian testimonies of the tenth century. In Iceland, the heathen sacerdotal dignitaries, termed Godar, held both religious and judicial offices, and transmitted their dignity to their male heirs. The Godar presided at the judicial court and at ritual ceremonies, appointed their coadjutors in the administration of justice, officiated at communal solemnities, (such as the manumission of slaves), and watched over the preservation of public security and peace. This combination of duties is nearly analogous to the several functions which Tacitus ascribes to the German priests.
Their Political Influence.
Graf, or Count.
The nobles were also charged with important political affairs, as is attested by Roman writers who lived during the decline of the empire. On embracing Christianity, the priestly immunities of the nobility were, of course, either lost, or appropriated by the Roman clergy; but the nobles still retained the direction of the judicial administration, as is to be observed in the first establishment of the large German domains, among the Franks, Saxons, Alemanni, &c. Judges were, in the days of Tacitus, elected by the assembly of the people; after the great migration, however, when the Germans began to form their extensive realms, the appointment of judges seems to have devolved upon the kings. In this way, the latter nominated their Grafen, (reeves, counts). The Romans translated the word Graf by Comes, which, at the final period of their empire, corresponded in meaning with prses provincia, (the governor of a province). The word comes, which was modified in the several Romanesque languages, (comte, conte, conde =count), signified, at a later time, a certain grade of feudal nobility.
Duties of the Counts.
The dignity of count appears to have been conferred exclusively on nobles, and was not merely connected with the chief direction of the courts of law, but likewise with the civil administration. The Gothic counts superintended the revenue derived from the Romans, the convocation of the people to the annual muster, the maintenance of public tranquillity, &c.
Allotment of Lands.
It is not a settled question, whether the nobles, at the division of lands wrested from the Roman, received larger allotments than the freemen; but it is consonant with the nature of regal authority, that a preference should be shown in favour of the former. The king surrounded himself with a number of officials, (ministeriales) whose services in the camp and at the court, were rewarded by the grant of so-called fiscal, or crown-lands. Noble courtiers, according to Tacitus, did not disdain to perform such menial services for royalty, as would, among the Romans, have been assigned to slaves. At the court of the Frankish kings, the nobles bore the title of Antrustiones; and they, like their sovereigns, gathered around them followers, who were composed of freemen and dependants. Neither were these courtly offices intrusted to nobles only. The Salic law speaks of freemen and even Romans, promoted to such high places. After the middle of the sixth century, these followers attained a preponderating influence at the courts of their princes, and subsequently effected a complete revolution in the allegiance of the nobles to the crown, and in the position of the alodialists, or freeholders. Like the Franks, the Goths had their suite of nobles. The Visigothic King Ricimer appeared on solemn occasions, with noble courtiers (reguli), who then already displayed in their equipment and arms that pageant, which remained the fashion throughout the middle ages.
Pride of ancestry is a natural concomitant of aristocracy, and is observable in the very dawn of German history. The advantages of high birth were impressed upon youths in the days of Tacitus, no less than in a later age, when German kingdoms sprang up from the ruins of the Roman empire. The Goths, in particular, were remarkably proud of their pedigrees, and bequeathed their high notions of birth to the Spaniards, as a prominent feature of their national character. Much stress was laid by Theodoric upon the fact of his being a descendant of the Amali. Nor was it considered a matter of little moment, that Cassiodorus was enabled to enrich his pedigree by the addition of a few ancestral names.
Badges of Distinction.
We have no information respecting the early signs of distinction between nobles and freemen. To judge by the illustrations of the Sachsenspiegel, chaplets on the heads of kings and nobles seem to have served as indications of superior rank. In the advanced period of the middle ages, coronets marked the several grades of feudal aristocracy, and possibly, were intended as improvements upon the simple decorations of antiquity. According to Jornandes, the noble Goths were recognizable by their hats. They also wore golden rings on their fingers; and it was by this ornament, that the noblemen fallen at the battle of Xeres de la Frontera were distinguishable from the rest of the killed. Other signs of high rank belong to a later period.
The mass of the German nation consisted of freemen, who had the same rights as the nobles, if we except the above-mentioned privileges. They were unrestricted in the tenure of their lands, in the power of alienating the same, and in the choice of their settlements within the limits of the empire. Their property entitled them to assist in the proceedings of justice, and to have their share of legislative authority in the annual meetings of the people. They were also at liberty to carry arms and to make use of them in avenging injuries done to their person, honor, or property, if they preferred vengeance to the acceptance of the pecuniary fine, fixed by the law. This right of feud, or retaliation, was afterwards claimed by the aristocracy, as their exclusive privilege. Among the Scandinavian freeholders, it remained in force till late in the middle ages, when the free classes of the other European states had already been reduced to a more or less oppressive state of servitude. The rights of the free landowners involved the duty of joining the Heribannum. While employed in this military service, the freeman had his indisputable share in the plunder. He was also exempt from the burdens of taxation and from the compulsory labour of tributary subjects. He had to pay no permanent ground-rent, with which only the subjected Romans were charged. The dues demanded of the freeman were merely of a temporary nature, and consisted of presents and supplies to the king and his court. In times of war, he had also to provide horses and waggons. The freemen, among each other, constituted communal associations for the mutual protection of their rights. As an outward sign of their independence, they wore their hair long, like the nobles.
Decline of Freedom.
The circumstances which conspired to deprive the free landholders of their independent condition can be traced in historical events, in the state of society, and in the effect of legal enactments. The franchises, once possessed by the free multitude of the people, were gradually usurped by the comparatively few families of the feudal aristocracy, while the majority of the once free classes were subjected to a state of villenage or servitude. The condition of dependence, like the circumstances by which it had been adduced, materially varied in degree, and cannot be minutely described here, the subject being too remote from our purpose. The following few words will suffice to show the contrast between hereditary villenage and the hereditary rank of nobility.
Liti, or Villeins.
No villein possessed an unlimited right of acquiring property; he was not allowed to remove from the locality assigned to him by his lord; he was excluded from taking an active part in the administration of the law, and from voting at the national assemblies; he was not permitted to carry arms, and only followed the armed bands of warriors for the purpose of escorting the wounded and burying the dead; at the same time the law refused him the use of the sword, the lance, and the shield. He had to perform compulsory labour in the house and the field of his lord, and to pay a variety of taxes. Moreover, it was his duty to supply provisions for the army and food for the horses; to keep the weapons of the warriors in good condition, forge horses' shoes, &c. The free proprietors kept so completely aloof from the Liti (i. e., villeins) that even in the ancient northern mythology, a special region is assigned, in after life, to the dependent labourers. As a striking mark of inferiority, the servile classes were obliged to wear their hair short-cropped, so as to avoid all equality with the dominant party.
The feudal nobles, as we have noticed, succeeded the free landholders in the possession of former privileges. The origin of this class of aristocracy has been ascribed to the courtly followers of royalty, the Antrustiones of the Franks. These dignitaries received royal lands in lieu of pay; perhaps, at first, only for life-time, but afterwards as hereditary property. The weakness of the Merovingian dynasty certainly leads to the supposition, that reversionary grants of land could not easily be recovered by the crown, and remained at last in possession of the beneficed tenants by the force of prescription. In 887, Charles the Bald rendered the dignity of the counts inheritable by royal edict; yet the wording of the law sufficiently shows that it merely sanctioned an old-established usage. The perpetuation of territorial grants, while materially diminishing the influence of the crown upon the holder of the property, changed altogether the character of the original donation. Such landed property, first held by high officers of the crown, and afterwards, as the heirloom of certain families, was originally termed a "benefice" (beneficium), and subsequently, a fee or feud (feudum). Even in the days of Charlemagne, such tenures were already very numerous, and distinguished from lands held by freemen. The Capitularies of that monarch abound in passages relative to feudal tenures; the one cited in the note is of especial interest, for the early mention it makes of cavaliers (caballarii), who will come under our notice under the more expressive title of knights.
Romans and Barbarians.
An erroneous opinion was formerly prevalent, that feudal nobility had been bestowed solely upon German functionaries, established in the provinces taken from the Romans. The latter were not disqualified from holding fiefs. It can easily be conceived, that there were many official employments to which the victorious barbarians were not suited, and to which, in consequence, Romans were appointed. Thus Cassiodorus occupied an eminent post during the Ostrogothic dominion in Italy. Also among the Visigoths, in the south of Gaul and in Spain, Romans held places under Government, as we learn from Sidonius Apollinaris. The Frankish laws speak very distinctly of the Romans attached to the court, designating them conviv regis (men admitted to the royal table). Their weregild was fixed at the rate of one third beyond that of an alodialist. Nor were the Romans excluded from military service. In the victory of Clovis over the Visigoths, the son of the Roman author Sidonius Apollinaris fell by the side of the nobles of Auvergne, while fighting at the head of the Gothic army. The Salic law likewise alludes to Romans serving in the army. Through military service they had a chance of rising from their low degree of tributary dependence to the position of their free fellow-combatants. In addition to these circumstances, so favorable to the subjected Romans, their clergy must have exercised a considerable sway over the Franks, the Goths, and the Lombards; and on the conversion of the latter two tribes to the Catholic faith, the religious teachers of Rome, undoubtedly, had good opportunities of raising their own kindred from the degraded position of a vanquished people.
The Antrustiones, as has been noticed, had their followers, who were composed of freemen and villeins. Indeed, it appears to have been part of their duties, to attach to themselves such men, so that they might be able to supply the numbers required for the levies of the army. The holders of large fiefs or benefices, extended their power by letting portions of their estate to other noblemen or freemen. By such a transfer of tenure, their tenants were bound to a performance of duties and services, and were placed in a state of dependency analogous to the allegiance they themselves owed to the crown. This process of making grants out of estates held under the crown was called sub-infeudation, and is referred to in the capitularies of Pepin and Charlemagne. In the tenth century, this mode of transferring landed property had become so general, that nearly all fees were held in sub-infeudation. The same homage and oath of fidelity were offered by the tenant,—now termed vassal,—to the chief holder of lands (the lord who held in chief), as this one had offered to the sovereign. Owing to the complicated relations arising from such grants, new burdens and personal duties were imposed, which made great inroads on the rights of alodial proprietors.
Causes of Declining Freedom.
The alodialists were deprived of their liberty, partly by events subversive to their social position, and partly by the force of legal enactments. A brief outline of the causes which brought about such a revolution will explain this subject. The dissolution of the frankish empire, under the successors of Charlemagne, which effected vital changes in the condition in France, Germany, and Italy, had been already provoked during the reign of that monarch. Laws enacted during his lifetime, strove to remedy the blunders and the negligence of the provincial governors (the counts), who felt no scruple in oppressing the petty landholders, and in making constant encroachments on the fiscal lands, situated within their jurisdiction. The undue power of high officials endangered both the authority of the crown and the independence of the freemen. During the whole reign of Charlemagne, the latter were compelled to neglect their lands, and to attend to the harassing duties of the camp, without receiving a fair compensation for their services. At the same time, the freeman had to provide himself with arms and food, and to furnish supplies towards the common necessities. The chances of plunder might have afforded some compensation to the ruined soldier for his loss of time and labor, but they were too few and insignificant in the wars with the Saxons and Lombards, since both nations were to be left in the unmolested enjoyment of their possessions and privileges. To escape the oppressiveness of military duty, many freemen entered the clerical profession. The emperor, anxious to mitigate the growing evil, had to concede to his military servants the necessary relief, by the extension of benefices.
Excerpted from The History of Chivalry and Armour by F. Kottenkamp. Copyright © 2007 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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