Yet feudalism had not always been a mere tyranny of the military class over the unarmed population. Like the Roman Empire, that of the Franks had forfeited respect and popularity by misgovernment, by feeble government, by insupportable demands on the personal service of the subject. The land-owner was a less exacting master than the Empire; often he could defend his tenants from imperial exactions. During the invasions of the Northmen and Hungarians, he was impelled by his own interest to guard his estates to the best of his ability. Therefore common men looked to their landlord, or looked about them for a landlord, to whom they could commend themselves. The great estate was the ark of refuge from the general flood of social evils. In the eleventh century the situation changed. The Hungarian tide of invasion was rolled back by a Henry the Fowler and an Otto the Great; the Northmen enrolled themselves as members of the European commonwealth. The petty feudal despot was no longer needed. From a protector he had degenerated into a pest of society. The great political problem of the age was to make him innocuous. It was taken in hand, and it was settled, by a variety of means.
In France the Church took the lead of the repressive movement, endeavouring to mitigate the horrors of private war by certain restrictions upon the combatants. During the eleventh century it was not unusual for the bishop of a diocese to secure the co-operation of representative men, from all classes of society, in proclaiming a local Truce of God (Treuga Dei). This Truce, which all men were invited to swear that they would observe, forbade the molestation of ecclesiastics, peasants and other non-combatants; provided that cultivated land should not be harried or cattle carried off; and named certain seasons when no war should be waged. A typical agreement of this kind enjoins that all private hostilities shall be suspended from Wednesday evening to Monday morning in each week; from the beginning of Advent till a week after the Epiphany; from the beginning of Lent till a week after Easter; from the Rogation Days till a week after Pentecost. The Truce of God was approved by the Crown both in France and in Germany; even in the twelfth century it was still recommended by church councils as a useful expedient. But it was seldom effectual. There was no machinery for enforcing it; and those who swore to uphold it were so divided by conflicting class interests that they could not co-operate with any cordiality. The second of these defects, though not the first, can also be perceived in the German system of the Land-peace. Periodically we find an Emperor constraining a particular province, or even the whole German kingdom, to accept a set of rules which are partly modelled on those of the Treuga Dei and partly in the nature of criminal legislation. Thus in 1103 the magnates of the kingdom were required to swear that for the next four years they would not molest ecclesiastics, merchants, women, or Jews; that during the same period they would neither burn nor break into private houses; that they would not kill or wound or hold to ransom any man. In regard to the last rule the magnates insisted on some modification; it was finally provided that a man meeting a private enemy on the high-road might attack him, but might not pursue him if he took refuge in a private house. The general Land-peaces of Frederic Barbarossa (1152) and Frederic II (1235) are the most important enactments of this kind; but they deviate widely from the original type. They are permanent; they aim at the total suppression of lawless self-help; they are codes of criminal law which, if thoroughly enforced, would have opened a new era in German history. As the case stands - they are only the evidence of an unrealised project of reform.
It was not by confederations of this kind, whether spontaneous or compulsory, that feudalism could be bridled. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the great age of medieval statesmanship, saw other and more effectual remedies applied. In the free cities of France, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany, the commercial classes perfected a form of association which, however faulty in other respects, was successful in excluding feudalism from the principal centres of urban industry. In the larger states, whether kingdoms or not, the rulers, supported by the Church and the commons, bestirred themselves to slay the many-headed Hydra. Feudalism was not extirpated, but it was brought under the law. In many districts it defied repression. To the end of the Middle Ages the Knights of Suabia and the Rhineland maintained the predatory traditions of the Dark Ages; and everywhere feudalism remained a force inimical to national unity. But the great feudatories who survived into the age of Machiavelli and of the new despotisms had usually some claims upon the respect of their subjects. The Duchy of Brittany, the Burgundian inheritance, the German electorates, were mainly objectionable as impeding the growth of better communities - better because more comprehensive, more stable, more fitted to be the nurseries of great ideas and proud traditions.