Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The Benefits of Feudalism

It is not unusual to hear the word 'feudal' used pejoratively or derisively - used to evoke the specter of a system which represses, enslaves, and disenfranchises. One can be thankful that thoughtful historians know better - these old platitudes have long been discredited among those who understand the ways in which the feudal system offered benefits not only to people at the top of the social ladder, but also to those at the bottom.

Feudalism was above all a system of flexibility. Power and decision-making were localized, not left in the hands of a distant monarch and his bureaucracy. A lord had a unique relationship, codified in a unique oath, with each of his vassals. This was a cultural step forward inasmuch as recognized the individuality of each vassal; this reflects Western Civilization's concern with the individual, and European culture's respect for the individual. The variables of the lord's life, and of the vassal's life, were taken into account when such an oath of fealty was formulated - the size and nature of the land involved, the number and ages of children, the age of the lord and of the vassal, spouses, etc.

Even more, feudalism created an obligation for the powerful to help the weak - feudal obligations were bilateral. The vassal owed service to his lord, but the lord owed certain things to the vassal. This was in sharp contrast to, e.g., the Roman emperors, to whom much was owed, but who owed nothing to their subjects.

In a book titled A History of Private Life, in volume two of that book, Revelations of the Medieval World, edited by Georges Duby and translated by Arthur Goldhammer, Georges Duby writes:

Nevertheless, feudalization should also - and, I think, primarily - be seen as a fragmentation of public power. In Lemarignier's words: "Public authority was dismembered and at times reduced to little more than crumbs." This crumbling of authority ultimately resulted in a broad dissemination of the prerogatives of government; each great household became a sovereign state unto itself, where the power exercised by the master, though limited in scope, nevertheless preserved its original nature, which was public. So we might equally well say that in feudal society everything became public. What happened in reality was that aspects of power perceived to be public diminished in importance up to the beginning of the twelfth century; then, as states began to reconstitute themselves, the extent of public authority again began to increase. At no time, however, not even at the nadir of public authority - around 1100 - did people lose sight of the idea that there is a specifically public way to rule. They continued to believe in the existence of public rights such as the regalia, to which the emperor laid claim in Italy in the twelfth century. (His claim was based on Roman law, newly rediscovered in this period of renaissance, of return to classical juridical forms that had been swept away by the great feudal wave.) Study of the political vocabulary has shown that the private-public distinction survived.

As royal and imperial power fragmented, its pieces fell to lower and lower levels of society. A large-scale decentralization of power meant society's pyramid was shorter and broader. More people held small pieces of power, instead of fewer people holding large pieces of power. Among those who held power, the amount of power each held was small, but there were more power-holders. Among those who held little or no power, their chances of knowing, interacting with, and influencing a power-holder were greater.

In the decades preceding A.D. 1000 the pace of change accelerated. The chain of authority broke in numerous places, leaving isolated pockets of power. In the past, kings in their incessant peregrinations had visited innumerable scattered palaces, which between royal visits were occupied by counts; these now became autonomous. For some time the counts in France had considered the public power delegated to their ancestors by the king a part of their own patrimony. The roots of dynasties were planted in cemeteries, and the kin of the counters were organized in lineages, just like those of the king. Claiming the emblems and virtues of royalty for themselves, the counts little by little ceased to make regular calls upon the sovereign; their withdrawal, along with that of the bishops, dimmed what memories remained in the royal court of the days when power was a public good. By 1050-1060 the Capetian monarch's only remaining allies were his close relatives, a few hunting companions and comrades-in-arms, and the heads of his household departments. The powers of peace and justice were exercised locally by independent princes, who from time to time met where their respective territories touched, on neutral ground, to declare their friendship. At these meetings each prince comported himself as a monarch, treating the portion of the kingdom subject to his power as an annex of his household.

This localization of power had a freeing effect on society. The mention of France reminds the reader that feudalism was an outgrowth of a Frankish and therefore Germanic tribal-familial structure. As memory of Rome's centralized imperial power receded, a more comfortable relationship between ruler and ruled, between vassal and lord, arose. This political loosening and flexibility would yield intellectual fruit: feudalism can be seen as empowering the rise of the universities, Gothic architecture, polyphonic music, and mathematic and scientific advancements.