Before discussing the origins or the effects of feudalism it is well to form a definite conception of the system as we find it in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when it is the basis of local government, of justice, of legislation, of the army and of all executive power. In this period the lawyers have arrived at the doctrine that all lands is held from the King either mediately or directly. The King is himself a great landowner with demesnes scattered over the length and breadth of the realm; the revenues of these estates supply him with the larger part of his permanent income. The King is surrounded by a circle of tenants-in-chief, some of whom are bishops and abbots and ecclesiastical dignitaries of other kinds; the remainder are dukes, counts, barons, knights. All of these, laymen and churchmen alike, are bound to perform more or less specific services in return for their lands; the most important is military service, with a definite quota of knights, which they usually render at their own charge; but they are also liable to pay aids (auxilia) of money in certain contingencies, to appear regularly at the King's council and to sit as assessors in his law court. They hold their lands in fact upon a contract; but the precise obligations named in this contract do not exhaust their relation to the King. In a vague and elastic sense they owe him honour (obsequium) and loyalty (fidelitas). They must do all in their power to uphold his interests and exalt his dignity. He on his side is bound to consult them collectively, in all matters of importance, and to maintain them individually in the rights and possessions which he has granted to them. These personal and indefinite ties should not be renounced, on either side, without some very serious reason - gross treachery, gross neglect of duty, gross abuse of power or privilege.

These tenants-in-chief have on their estates a number of sub-tenants, who are bound to them by similar contracts and a similar personal relation. The homage of the sub-tenant to his immediate lord ought to be qualified by a reservation of the allegiance which all subjects owe to the King. Whether this reservation shall be made or, when made, shall have any practical consequences, will depend upon the King's resources and personality. Where effective, it means that he can claim from the sub-tenants the discharge of certain national duties, can call on them for military service, can judge them in his court, can tax them with the consent of his council, that is of their lords; on the other hand, it means that these sub-tenants may not allege the commands of their lord as an excuse for making war upon the King or committing any breach of the public peace. Where the general duty of allegiance has lapsed into oblivion, the tenant-in-chief is in all but name a dependent king, and the feudal state becomes a federation under a hereditary president, who occasionally arbitrates between the members of the federation and occasionally leads them out to war.

The other members of the feudal state group themselves or are forcibly grouped under the rule of different persons in the feudal hierarchy. In the open country the soil is partly tilled by small free-holders, who pay to this or that lord a rent in money, kind, or services. Like the feudal sub-tenants these free-holders are, for most purposes, subject to the jurisdiction of their lord; though in the well organised state the royal judges protect them against the grosser forms of violence. But the greater part of the land is divided between servile village-communities, who give up perforce a large proportion of their working-days to the cultivation of the lord's demesne. The tendency of feudal law is to treat these peasants as slaves, to deny them the assistance of the royal law-courts, to regard them as holding their land at the will of their lord. In practice the lord finds that he cannot insist upon the full measure of his legal right. Though he has the right to reclaim all runaways, it is difficult to hunt them down; though he can fix the measure of his own demands, it is dangerous and unprofitable to arouse a spirit of mutiny. A judge from whom his serfs have no appeal in matters that concern their tenure, he finds it politic to make and to observe definite contracts, which remain unaltered from one generation to another. Hence the condition of the serfs, though hard, is less precarious than we might suppose if we only studied what the feudal lawyer has to say about them. Turning from the country to the towns, we find that all are subject to a lord or to the King; that some are only half-emancipated communities of serfs; that in others the burgesses have the status of small free-holders; that in a minority, but a growing minority, of cases the burgesses have established the right to deal collectively with the lord, to be regarded as communes or free cities. In these cases there is a form of popular self-government under elected magistrates. Through the magistrates the town pays a fixed rent to the former lord; usually it claims the special protection of the King, and comes to hold the position of a tenant-in-chief (une seigneurie collective populaire ). No society could be, in spirit and in organisation, more anti-feudal than the free town of the Middle Ages; but it can only secure a safe existence by obtaining a definite position in the feudal hierarchy. In fact, the clergy are the only considerable class who succeed in resisting the universal tendency to feudalise all landed property and to find for every man a lord. Even they are compelled to make large concessions to the spirit of the age. It is only at the cost of long and ruinous conflicts that bishops and other prelates establish some distinction between their position and that of the ordinary tenant-in-chief. Even so it remains the law that the principal endowments of every religious foundation are fiefs held under a feudal contract of service. More successful, though not less difficult, was the struggle against the theory that the parish-priest is the vassal of his patron and may, by recognising his obligations as a vassal, acquire the vassal's privilege of passing on his office to his son.

Such then was feudalism in the concrete. It is the negation of all that we hold to be most important in the conceptions of the state and citizenship. In effect, though not altogether in theory, it subordinates the obligations of the citizen to those which the individual incurs by entering on a voluntary contract. This contract may or may not be made with the ruler of the state; in the majority of cases it is made with a fellow-citizen. Though honourable, according to current ideas, this contract always leaves to the lord some loopholes for the exercise of arbitrary and capricious authority; it impairs, if it does not destroy, the rule of law. Again, the effect of the system is to throw the main burden of national defence, and the main control of the royal power, upon a close hereditary caste of landowners. The standard of public duty is lowered; the government becomes either an absolutism or an oligarchy, and in either case studies chiefly the interests of a class which despises industry and holds privilege to be the necessary basis of society. Under feudalism the powers of the Crown, executive, judicial, administrative, are often granted away to be held by the same tenure as the fiefs over which they are exercised. And thus is created the worst form of civil service that we can conceive; a corps of hereditary officials, who can only be checked or removed with extreme difficulty, who render no account of the sums which they collect under the name of fines or dues, who are seldom educated to the point of realising that, even in their private interest, honesty is the best policy. If this system had developed to its logical conclusion, if the principles of feudal government had not been mitigated by revolt from below and interested tyranny from above, the only possible end would have been a state of particularism and anarchy compared with which the Germany of the fifteenth century, or the Italy of the eighteenth, might be called an earthly paradise.

The very defects of the feudal system are, however, the best proof that it was the natural and inevitable product of social evolution. A legal theory so complex, so repugnant to the best traditions both of Roman and barbarian government, could not have obtained general recognition, as part of the natural order of things, unless it had grown up by degrees, unless it had been the outcome of older usages and institutions. A form of social organisation so cumbrous and so dangerous could hardly have survived for centuries unless it had solved difficulties of unusual urgency and magnitude. Let us then consider, in their historical order, the antecedents of feudalism and the reasons of state by which it was justified.

Before the downfall of the Roman Empire the duties of local government were slipping from the grasp of the imperial executive. With or without official consent, the great proprietors - already held responsible for the taxes, the military service, and the good conduct of their dependents - were assuming rights of jurisdiction. When Gaul was reorganised by the Merovingians, these private courts of law continued to exist; and they were even legally recognised (by Clotaire II in 614) as institutions of public utility. A certain number of great estates were further protected by special charters of privilege ( immunitas) which forbade public officials to enter them for the purposes of making arrests, of holding courts, of collecting fines and levying distraints. The owners were obliged to surrender any person accused of a grave crime, but otherwise did justice at their pleasure.

This system of immunity was greatly extended by the Carolingian sovereigns, but with two important changes. (1) Henceforward the privilege was seldom granted to laymen, but was bestowed as a matter of course on the estates of bishops and of religious houses. (2) The holders of such ecclesiastical estates were compelled to vest their powers of police and justice in the hands of laymen (advocati) chosen either by the central power or by some approved form of election. The intention of these changes was to use the private courts for the maintenance of public order, to extract the sting from a dangerous privilege, and to make it a serviceable instrument of royal policy. But only one half of the scheme was permanent. By the middle of the ninth century, when immunitas had been granted to all religious foundations, the Carolingians allowed the right of choosing the advocati to slip from their feeble grasp. The privileged estates remained, but the royal control over their internal government was gone. They became ecclesiastical seignories; whatever checks were imposed upon the power of their rulers came from the lay-nobles who were their neighbours, or from the subject population. Partly from respect for custom and tradition, partly from motives of self-interest, the great ecclesiastical landowners sided with the Crown, even in the tenth century, when the fortunes of royalty were at their lowest ebb. But for this support a price had to be paid; the old privileges were maintained and even augmented by grants of the power of life and death (hautejustice, blut-bann). Thus came into existence the class of ecclesiastical princes, who throughout the Middle Ages maintained a state, and wielded a power, comparable with that of any lay feudatory.

The ecclesiastical immunitas, as early as the ninth century, was in the eyes of all ambitious landowners the model of a privileged estate. But it was by another road that the layman arrived at the position of a petty sovereign. Speaking broadly, there are two stages in his progress. First, he comes into the position of a royal tenant, holding his lands in exchange for services and fealty. Secondly, he acquires, by delegation or usurpation, a greater or smaller part of the royal authority over his own dependents.

(1) The idea of a personal contract between the free warrior and his lord, by which the former places himself at the disposition of the latter and promises unlimited service, is one which occurs in many primitive societies and is peculiar to no one branch of the human race. Tacitus noticed, as one feature of German life in his time, the free war-band (comitatus) who lived in the house of their chief, followed him to battle, and thought it the last degree of infamy to return alive from the field on which he had fallen. The Merovingian kings maintained a bodyguard of this kind (antrustions). Under the Carolingians such followers appear in the host, in the royal household, in every branch of the administration. They are the most trusted agents of the King and possess considerable social consequence. They are called vassi, a name formerly applied to any kind of dependent, but now reserved for free men rendering free services to the King or some other lord, and subject to his jurisdiction. So valuableare these followers that, in the eighth and ninth centuries, the power of the great is largely measured by the number of vassi whom they can put into the field.

Various considerations suggested to Frankish rulers and nobles the expediency of endowing these followers with land, and of granting land to no tenant unless he would take the vassal's oath. Usually land was the only form of pay which the lord could give; and it always served as a material guarantee of faithful service, since it could be resumed whenever the vassal made default. In days when law and morality availed little as the sanctions of contracts, the landlord naturally desired to bind his tenant to him by a personal obligation; and there were obvious advantages in providing that every tenant should be liable to aid his lord with arms. The estates granted to vassals were known as benefices (beneficia); they foreshadowed the lay-fief of later times. But there are some distinctions to be drawn. The benefice was not de jure heritable; it escheated on the death of either lord or tenant. The service was not measured with the same precision as in later times. The military duties of the beneficed vassal were not different in kind or degree from those of the ordinary freemen. Finally, the idea had not yet arisen that vassals were superior in status to the rest of the community. The importance of the vassal depended entirely on his wealth and his rank in the King's employ. Only in the old age of the Carolingian Empire, when the class of free landowners, acknowledging no lord, had been almost ground out of existence by official oppression and the intolerable burden of military service, was the burden of national defence thrown entirely upon vassals. Then, as the sole military class in the community, they acquired the consideration which, in early stages of social development, is the monopoly of those who are trained to arms.

(2) It was natural that the tie of vassalage should be imposed on every important official; and natural also to regard his office as a benefice, tenable for life or during good behaviour. At an early date we find cases of conquered princes - a Duke of Aquitaine, a Duke of Bavaria, a King of Denmark - who take the vassal's oath and agree to hold their former dominions as a beneficium. So again a member of the royal house does homage and promises service in return for his appanage. More common, and more important for the future, is the practice of treating counts as vassals. All over the Frankish Empire the county was the normal unit of local administration. The count led the military levies, collected the royal dues, enforced the laws, maintained the peace, and was a judge with powers of life and death. The Carolingians controlled their counts by means of itinerant inspectors (missi dominici); but with the disruption of their Empire this check was destroyed, while the power of the count survived. By that time the office had often become hereditary, on the analogy of the beneficium, and the count appropriated to his own use the profits of his office. In such cases his county became a small principality, classed by lawyers as a fief, but often ruled without any reference to the interests of the royal overlord. The fiefs of Anjou, Champagne and Flanders began in this way as hereditary countships. Sometimes, again, we find that a great vassal obtains, by grant of usurpation, the prerogatives of a count over his own lands; examples are the prince-bishops of Trier (898 A.D.), Hamburg (937), and Metz (945).

The first effect of this striking change in the nature of landed property and of public office was to substitute for the centralised state of the Carolingians a lax federal system, in which each unit was a group of men attached to the person of a hereditary superior. This nascent feudalism was often brutal, always summary and short-sighted, in its methods of government. The feudal group was engaged in a perpetual struggle for existence with neighbouring groups. Feudal policy was aggressive; for every lord had his war-band, whom he could only hold together by providing them with adventure and rich plunder; nor could any lord regard himself as safe while a neighbour of equal resources remained unconquered. Furthermore, as though the disintegration of society had not gone far enough, every great fief was in constant danger of civil war and partition. As the lord had treated the King, so he in turn was treated by his vassals. He endowed them with lands, he allowed them to found families, he gave them positions of authority; and then they defied him. In the eleventh century the great fief bristled with castles held by chief vassals of the lord; in the small county of Maine alone we hear of thirty-five such strongholds; generally speaking they were centres of rebellion and indiscriminate rapine. Such feudalism was not a system of government; it was a symptom of anarchy.

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.

It remains to speak of chivalry, that peculiar and often fantastic code of etiquette and morals which was grafted upon feudalism in the eleventh and succeeding centuries. The practical influence of chivalry has been exaggerated. Chivalrous ethics were in great measure the natural product of a militarist age. Bravery and patriotism, loyalty and truthfulness, liberality and courtesy and magnanimity - these are qualities which the soldier, even in a semi-civilised society, discovers for himself. The higher demands of chivalric morality were as habitually disregarded as the fundamental precepts of the Christian faith. The chivalric statesmen of the Middle Ages, from Godfrey of Bouillon to Edward III and the Black Prince, appear, under the searchlight of historical criticism, not less calculating than Renaissance despots or the disciples of Frederic the Great of Prussia. But something less than justice has been rendered to the chivalric ideal. The ethics which it embodied were arbitrary and one-sided; but they represent a genuine endeavour to construct, if only for one class, a practicable code of conduct at a time when religion too often gloried in demanding the impossible. Chivalry degenerated into extravagance and conventional hyperbole; but at the worst it had the merit of investing human relationships and human occupations with an ideal significance. In particular it gave to women a more honourable position than they had occupied in any social system of antiquity. It rediscovered one half of human nature. But for chivalry the Beatrice of Dante, the Laura of Petrarch, Shakespeare's Miranda and Goethe's Marguerite, could not have been created, much less comprehended.

Chivalry in the oldest discoverable form was the invention of the Church. The religious service by which the neophyte was initiated as a knight has been traced back to the time of Otto III, when it appears in the liturgy of the Roman churches. But the ceremony was not in general use, outside Italy, before the age of the Crusades. It was Urban II who inspired the knighthood of northern Europe with the belief that they were Dei militia, the soldiers of the Church; and it is significant that warfare against the unbeliever ranks prominently among the duties enjoined upon the new-made knight, though it does not stand alone. The defence of the true faith and of the Church is also inculcated; merit might be acquired in persecuting heretics or in fighting for the Pope against an unjust Emperor. Nor are the claims of the widow, the orphan and the defenceless totally forgotten. But the perfect knight of the Church was the Templar, the soldier living under the rule of a religious order and devoting his whole energies to the cause of the Holy Sepulchre. It was a remarkable innovation when St. Bernard, the mirror of orthodox conservatism, undertook to legislate for the Order of the Temple; for the primitive Church had hardly tolerated wars in self- defence. From one point of view it was a wholesome change of attitude in the moral leaders of society, that they should recognise war and a military class as inevitable necessities, that they should undertake to moralise and idealise the commonest of occupations. But the resolve was marred in the execution. In the desire to be practical, the Church set up too low an aim and translated Christianity into precepts which were only suited for one short stage of medieval civilisation, the stage of the Crusades.

In the long run the poet had far more influence than the priest upon the chivalric classes. It is remarkable how uniformly Popes and Councils set their faces against the bloodshed and extravagant futilities of the tournament; still more remarkable that even threats of excommunication could not deter the most orthodox of knights from seeking distinction and distraction in these mimic wars. Equally significant is the growth of the service des dames which, although invested by troubadours and minnesingers with a halo of religious allegory, was disliked by the Church, not merely from a dread of possible abuses, but as inherently idolatrous. The cult of the Virgin, while doing honour to the new conception of womanhood, was also a protest against a secular romanticism. Here and there a Wolfram von Eschenbach essays the feat of reconciling poetry with religion in the picture of the perfect knight. But the school of courtoisie prevailed; the most celebrated of the troubadours are mundane, not to say profane; Walther von der Vogelweide, with his bitter attacks upon the Papacy, is more typical of his class than Wolfram with his allegory of Parsifal and the Sangraal. It was in Provence, on the eve of the Albigensian Crusade, in the society which was most indifferent to official Christianity and most hostile to the clergy, that chivalry was most sedulously preached and developed in the most curious detail. In the hands of the troubadours it became a gospel of pageantry and fanfaron, of artificial sentiments and artificial heroisms, cloaking the materialism, the sensuality and the inordinate ostentation of a theatrical and frivolous society, intoxicated with the pride of life.