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Middle Ages

The imperial policy of Charles the Great constitutes a preface to the history of the later Middle Ages. He holds the balance between nascent forces which are to distract the future by their conflicts. He pays impartial homage to ideas which statesmen less imperious or more critical will afterwards regard as irreconcilable. He is at one and the same time an autocrat, the head of a ruling aristocracy, and a popular ruler who solicits the co-operation of primary assemblies.

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.

An institution is not necessarily discredited when we discover that it has grown from small beginnings, has been applied under new conditions to new purposes, and in the course of a long history has been defended by arguments which are demonstrably false. The child, no doubt, is father of the man; but the man is something different from, and may well be something better than, his infant self. We must not attach undue importance to the study of origins. On the other hand we cannot afford to neglect them.

Modern life has travelled so far beyond medieval Christianity that it is only with an effort we retrace our steps to the intellectual position of a St. Bernard, a St. Francis, or the Imitatio Christi .

Between the years 1100 and 1500 A.D. the state-system of Europe passed through changes amounting in their sum-total to a revolution. But the changes which endured, whether they affected political boundaries or constitutions, came about by slow instalments. At no stage of the development was there any general cataclysm such as had followed the dissolution of the Frankish Empire, and was to follow the advent of Napoleon.

Neither the internal development of the medieval state nor the international politics of medieval Europe can be explained without constant reference to class distinctions. First, there is a sharp line dividing each state horizontally and marking off the privileged few from the unprivileged many, the rulers from the ruled. Below the line are the traders, artisans, and cultivators of the soil; above it the landlords, the officeholders, and the clergy.

Scattered broadcast over the territory of every medieval state are towns endowed with special privileges, and ruled by special magistrates. Some of these towns - particularly in Italy, Southern France, and the Rhineland - stand on the sites, and even within the walls, of ancient municipia, those miniature Homes which the statecraft of the Empire had created as seats of government and schools of culture.

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